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Of Challenge & Of Love - Stravinsky, Carter / Lucy Shelton


Release Date: 11/18/1997 
Label:  Koch International Classics Catalog #: 7425   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Igor StravinskyElliott Carter
Performer:  Lucy SheltonJohn Constable
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a recording with a wonderful concept. Take two modernist masters from either end of the century, not immediately associated with voice, and pair their complete works for solo voice and piano. What emerges in each case is a fascinating (though fragmentary) portrait of each.

First to Stravinsky. The overwhelming majority of these works date from just before the Neoclassical period: on the outer edges of the oeuvre, there are a few early songs that might puzzle experts in a "name-the-composer" quiz, and the 1966 Owl and the Pussycat, perhaps the most charming I2-tone song ever written. The earliest songs show exceptional skill and personality, and the (expected) influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and the French
Read more school. But despite the great polish and imagination of these songs, the shift represented by the 1907 Pastorale still comes as a shock: it is so pure and simple, so fresh, and it predates even Firebird by two years! From this point on, the Stravinsky we know and expect comes forward: the overall flavor of these works is that of the pungent "Russian" period between Sacre and Pulcinella. There are few surprises here, but endless delights abound (though the 1911 Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont do have delicate, semitonal figurations in the accompaniment that evoke the influence of Pierrot Lunaire as much as of Petrushka). A particular pleasure is Shelton and Constable's narration to "The Bear" from the Three Tales for Children (1916-17), delivered in deadpan English. Lucy Shelton's performance strikes me as well-nigh perfect in these works. Her Russian diction seems superb (as best I can tell, watching the texts), and she gets a sound that has a rich, slightly guttural quality whose conversational tone never loses its tight musical focus.

The Carter is an entirely different world, and frankly subdivides into the music of two almost completely different composers. The opening works are settings of Frost, Whitman, and Crane, written in a quick burst over 1942 43. They show Carter at a turning point, as the music is still in the highly lyric, pantonal language of midcentury American nationalism, but there is also a love of density in the racing contrapuntal accompaniments that prefigures the upcoming shift to his famous, highly evolved polyphony. Of these, Voyage strikes me as a great song, a true masterpiece of its era. I have already written in Fanfare 19:6 about these works in another recording of them by Phyllis Bryn-Julson (Music & Arts 912), and refer readers there for further details concerning the music.

The most important news of the collection is the premiere recording of Of Challenge and Love, Carter's 1994 setting of five poems by John I lollander (best known to new music aficionados as the author of the libretto for Milton Babbitt's Philomel). This is Carter's first work for voice and piano in 50 years, and it joins a series of his more recent song cycles on texts of poets Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashberry, and Robert Lowell. Carter has shown excellent taste in his choice of texts over the years (perhaps a byproduct of his MA in literature from Harvard), and Hollander's poems are among the most successful he has set. They are learned, elevated in tone, yet preserve an essential lyricism and directness that keep them from turning in on themselves with a hermetic aestheticism (the way I*m afraid I feel that Ashberry's do). Carter's approach to these poems, however, I ultimately find disappointing. The general effect of every song is that of the vocal line moving in a slow, chantlike manner above a more active, intricately textured piano line. The feel of the vocal line is of a highly refined rhetoric against which the accompaniment sounds a clattery commentary, a little bit like the noises of outside world heard softly through a window while a poetic reading is being given in an intimate room. By itself, this approach is entirely valid and evocative; Carter's vocal line, while not seeded with obviously memorable melodic motives, has a genuine intensity of expression embodied in it, which Shelton delivers commandingly. The problem, rather, emerges over the long haul. This approach becomes a sort of Procrustean bed for the texts, and ultimately the relationship of voice and piano feels like one of two individuals studiously avoiding one another, or perhaps mutually sleepwalking. This is most evident in the penultimate song, "Quatrains from Harp Lake." Hollander uses a very strict and traditional rhyme/meter scheme for the eight stanzas of the poem; Carter refuses (at least in any aurally obvious way) to mirror that structure or technique musically. I understand that Carter's modernist credo would avoid what he felt was too obvious or easy a mirroring, but I still feel an opportunity for genuine play between intersecting musical/textual structures has been missed.

In the end, any new work by Carter is a major event, and I will return to this one with interest, even if it does not sufficiently satisfy me. Indeed, if not for what feels like undue length in the "Quatrains" song, I might be more enthusiastic, despite reservations. Shelton and Constable give the music every bit its due, and it is hard to imagine a better interpretation. My only criticism of the performance is a very specific one: often the music goes into high register on dynamically swelling long notes, and at these moments, Shelton 's vibrato becomes distracting. Frankly, I suspect this problem is based as much on an attribute of the music itself as on Shelton's technique—it's simply hard to sing loud, high, and vibratoless. But in the end, the communicative power of the text is diminished by what seems an intrusion of an alien musical sound.

I have given a disproportionate chunk of this review over to the new Carter work, and I would not want my reservations to take away my overall favorable impression of this disc. In terms of performance, repertoire, and production, it is a delight. Even if I do not equally enjoy everything on it, I love its sense of adventure, its range of expression. Highly recommended.

-- Robert Carl, FANFARE [3/1998] Read less

Works on This Recording

1.
Storm Cloud by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Lucy Shelton (Soprano), John Constable (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1902; Russia 
2.
The Owl and the Pussycat by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Lucy Shelton (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1966; USA 
3.
Of Challenge and of Love by Elliott Carter
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Lucy Shelton (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994; USA 
4.
Three Poems of Robert Frost by Elliott Carter
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Lucy Shelton (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; USA 
5.
Warble for Lilac Time by Elliott Carter
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Lucy Shelton (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; USA 
6.
Voyage by Elliott Carter
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Lucy Shelton (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; USA 
7.
Pastorale for Soprano and Piano by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Lucy Shelton (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1907; Russia 
8.
Poems (2) of Konstantin Bal'mont by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Lucy Shelton (Soprano), John Constable (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911/1954; Russia 
9.
Trois histoires pour enfants by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Lucy Shelton (Soprano), John Constable (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915-1917; Switzerland 
10.
Russian Songs (4) by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Lucy Shelton (Soprano), John Constable (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1918-1919; Switzerland 
11.
Berceuse by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Lucy Shelton (Soprano), John Constable (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1917 
12.
Little Songs (3) "Recollections of my childhood" by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Lucy Shelton (Soprano), John Constable (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1906/1913; Russia 
13.
Mavra: Oh, my dearest one "Parasha's Song" by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Lucy Shelton (Soprano), John Constable (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1921-1922; France 
14.
Mélodies (2), Op. 6 by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Lucy Shelton (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1908; Russia 

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