Notes and Editorial Reviews
SKELTON Ohr Songs: The Mad Potter. Clyburn Songs: A Kind of Weather • Stephen Lusmann (bar); Logan Skelton (pn) • BLUE GRIFFIN 287 (65:51 Text and Translation)
SKELTON Dickinson Songs: An Intimate Nature; The Unknown Peninsula • Jennifer Goltz (sop); Logan Skelton (pn) • BLUE GRIFFIN 285 (70:41 Text and Translation)
SKELTON Anderson Songs: The Islander. Skelton Songs: Into Deep Waters • Jennifer Goltz (sop); Stephen Lusmann (bar); Logan Skelton (pn) • BLUE GRIFFIN 283 (57:52 Text and Translation)
There is a compositional assurance from the very start here that reassures the listener that we are in the
hands of someone who lives and breathes song.
For the Emily Dickinson songs, Skelton has arranged them so that they trace the shape of a relationship. The hushed expectance of the first (“My River runs to thee”) is superbly projected by Jennifer Goltz, while the composer’s own accompaniment placidly, beautifully underpins the line. The composer’s idea of the tiny footsteps of a caterpillar illustrated in the piano accompaniment is delightfully realized, in a sort of frozen stillness. The use of habanera for “Your Riches—taught me—poverty” is as surprising as it is effective. There is much depth of emotion here. Try the fifth song, “A Thought went up my mind today,” a slow serenade to one of Dickinson’s most fascinating poems (it concerns the nature of thought itself). Goltz is simply superb in her control of the long, hushed lines.
The fact that it is the composer who gives his own commentary to the songs in the booklet makes this issue all the more fascinating. Skelton is up front about what he was trying to do in many of the songs, plus he often gives his own interpretation of what he thinks Dickinson is trying to say. Certainly the most powerful song is the nihilistic “I felt a funeral,” its effect achieved by simple means, that of repeated, desolate chords in the piano. Like the final “Good morning—Midnight,” this poem is much longer than its predecessors (the two average out to around eight minutes apiece; the average prior to that was around two and a half minutes). The simple means Skelton uses for the final poem are most effective, also, although here it is a simplicity that links back to the opening song.
George Edgar Ohr (1857–1918), known as “the mad potter of Biloxi” was a tremendously idiosyncratic potter (just take a look at the photo on the front of the disc to get a hint of the gentleman’s individual nature). These songs celebrate his uniqueness, with Skelton opting to use a bewildering variety of styles to illustrate the poems. The cycle The Mad Potter includes piano interludes inspired by Ohr texts (reproduced in the booklet) or, indeed, the pots themselves (the swirls of the piano Interlude that constitutes the ninth movement of the cycle); lighter pieces called “Ohr-ditties” (i.e. “oddities”), some of which would not sound out of place in a Cockney pub (the finale, “Whats the Matter Eh!” is a case in point); and the more serious art song. The texts of these latter are taken from inscriptions from Ohr’s pots, letters, and an autobiographical sketch of himself, among other random sources. The fourth song, “When I first found a wheel,” is truly beautiful, and the solid baritone of Stephen Lusmann is the perfect vehicle for it (this is not Lusmann’s only Skelton recording, as there is a disc of songs on the Centaur label). The first piano Interlude (“At the wheel”) is notably dark, fixated on the lower end of the piano. When it does allow for higher registers, they are astringently scaled. There is a manic element, too, which surely must be linked to Ohr (if the photo is anything to go by). Yet the close is notably Debussian of bent. The contrast to the ensuing Ohr-ditty “The Storking Storks!” is stark indeed. But perhaps the nostalgic bent of the seventh song, “Shapes come to a potter,” is most memorable; a shame that Lusmann’s vibrato becomes a trifle overzealous at climaxes.
I wonder if Skelton deliberately set out to invoke the aura of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade in “This is what I can do,” the next song? Deliberate or not, the invocation of the potter’s wheel cannot help but hearken back, especially in the halting of the motion at the climax and its ensuing resumption (mirroring Schubert’s Lied, of course). The creeping, atmospheric piano interlude “Everything in Everything (a puzzle mug),” inspired by a piece of Ohr’s art, acts as a reminder of the seriousness of intent at the heart of the goings-on here, issues that cannot be dismissed by the juxtaposed ditty, “A Hot Tomoly!,” and which, inevitably surface again (in “Father Time: A Prophecy”). The peace of the final song (“Postscript: “When I am gone”) is hard won indeed.
The first song cycle lasts a full 55 minutes; the concluding Clyburn songs (A Kind of Weather) take up a mere 10. Marshall Clyburn (b. 1953) is a friend of the composer’s, who has at various times shared excerpts from his journals with him. These five songs use texts from these journals. Clyburn’s musings seem perfect for Skelton. Lusmann shades the line appealingly in the brilliantly titled “Meteorology of the Soul” before letting his hair down for “Greazy Man (a New Orleans character).” Skelton manages to say much in the brief “I remember,” which depicts the fleeting feeling of immortality us humans can sometimes briefly experience. The crepuscular slant of “The last golden moment” is a beautiful way to end, and all credit to Lusmann’s vocal control here.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903–1965) was an American painter and poet. Skelton’s cycle The Islander is divided into three parts of four songs each: a prologue, an epilogue and two “interlogues.” There is much power here (it is difficult to credit that the third song, “Oh Zinnia!” is inspired by a flower). Again, contrast is a vital part of Skelton’s expression: the ensuing “Song of the Moon” is of a charming simplicity. Lusmann is once more the expressive soloist in this cycle, although again his vibrato can be intrusive (as in the seventh song, “The Bird Flies” and again in the 13th, “Song of the Horse”). The spoken voice is used to great effect in the interlogues and in the Epilogue. Logan is able to show off his pianistic prowess in the virtuoso accompaniment to “Song of the Deer and the Dogs” (the anxious vocal line above it seems inspired by the vocal writing of Benjamin Britten). But it is Skelton in poignant mode (compositionally speaking) that is most impressive, closely followed by the nostalgia-fuelled moments (“Song of the Pelican,” the penultimate movement).
Zan Skelton (1928–2012) is actually Logan Skelton’s father. It is therefore fitting to end this review with his cycle. A mere 13 minutes long, there is an affecting simplicity here. The moto perpetuo accompaniment to “Into Deep Waters” underpins Jennifer Goltz’s appealing voice and contrasts with the chordal, hymnic central song, the gorgeous “Like the Willow.” The final song, “On the morning of the last day,” is full of hope and a fine way to close this memorable disc.
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Works on This Recording
The Mad Potter by Logan Skelton
Stephen Lusmann (Baritone),
Logan Skelton (Piano)
A Kind of Weather by Logan Skelton
Stephen Lusmann (Baritone),
Logan Skelton (Piano)
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