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To Be Sung Upon The Water - Song Cycles / Patrice Michaels

Release Date: 10/30/1996 
Label:  Cedille Records   Catalog #: 29   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Dominick ArgentoRalph Vaughan Williams
Performer:  Patrice MichaelsJeffrey KustLarry CombsElizabeth Buccheri,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 20 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Dominick Argento (b. 1927) has written operas, song cycles, taught for decades at the University of Minnesota, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet despite all these accomplishments, he is still probably not as well known as he should be. Argento is one of the leading living exponents of American neo-Romanticism; in his generation, only Ned Rorem rises to mind as of comparable stature. Both the nature of his output, which comprises operas (chamber and full) and song cycles, and the nature of his musical language suggest that Argento is an “American Britten“: fundamentally tonal, but unafraid of dissonance and polytonality for the express range they yield. Indeed, this sort of extended tonality has a bite that gives extra poignancy to dramatic Read more gestures. This disc gives us three of his song cycles, two of which are masterful, and one (a work of youth) well crafted and entertaining.

Letters from Composers is one of the composer's most popular works, and it succeeds at what could be a kitsch undertaking. Argento takes his texts from selected composers' correspondence, and he is not afraid to show us the ordinary, prosaic side of life for people we usually imagine as heroic creators. Thus, Bach writes to the local authorities to enlist their aid in collecting unpaid bills from a stubborn client; Puccini rants about hating Paris; Debussy, in his final days, falls into xenophobic meditations occasioned by World War I. But of course this is not all: Schubert ponders his life and sees an ever deepening trough of depression ahead, and Schumann writes to Clara on the eve of their wedding, burning with Romantic idealism as he ponders the nature of their love. The work (originally written for tenor and guitar) walks a thin line between humor and pathos, and its success is determined largely by Argento's tasteful handling of the music itself. While there are a few explicit references to the composers' works and styles in the accompaniment (especially in the Bach and Schubert, where “Baroquisms“ abound in the former and in the latter the text's own references to Gretchen at her spinning wheel triggers the actual song's melody), on the whole Argento avoids easy parodies of his librettists' musical voices, instead evoking them allusively. The guitar writing covers a wide enough range so as never to sound too thin or clichéd, and the vocal part finds consistently memorable melodic motives in the essentially talky texts, culminating in the rapturous Schumann setting.

The other two cycles are quite different from one another. Songs About Spring dates from 1951 and is one of Argento's earliest major works. Setting e. e. cummings, it is lighthearted lyricism, sharing the spirit of its period with similar works by Bernstein, Barber, Rorem, and (the very young) Corigliano. The work is most impressive for its confident technique and already fully formed voice, exceptional for a twenty-four-year-old. To Be Sung Upon the Water dates from 1973 and is far more substantial. Setting poems by Wordsworth dealing with the intersection between image and reality via the medium of water (in particular, lakescapes that may be either England's Lake Country or the Swiss/Italian Alpine Lakes), Argento accompanies the voice with clarinet/bass clarinet and piano, sometimes using either one in a particular song, sometimes both. The tone is elevated/ transcendental, yet never ponderous: for example, the opening song, Shadow and Substance, is a gentle barcarolle; the next, The Lake at Evening, begins with mysterious piano chords, ambiguous in a sort of “Messiaenic“ way, only to be countered near its end with a simple clarinet melody that mirrors the text's “Great Pan himself low-whispering through the reeds.“ Though the music is fundamentally tonal throughout, it also is unafraid to mix a wide range of techniques and aesthetic approaches; for example, The Fair Swan is a duet for voice and bass clarinet that sounds serial, whether it really is or not, due to its leaping vocal line, deliberately mechanical rhythms, and overall “objective“ quality. In short, this is richly textured, highly expressive, beautifully crafted vocal music that leaves a substantial residue with those who will encounter it. In an age when irony seems to be all, it's refreshing to find music so serious and direct in purpose, so willing to probe spiritual matters without falling into the easy signals of soulfulness that mark so many pieces today.

After this feast, the Vaughan Williams works seem a bit slight, though the Songs and Vocalises are quite gorgeous and unusual in their instrumentation (wordless voice and clarinet). The selections from Along the Field are just a little too cute in the folk-song sensibility for my taste; but considering the generosity of the entire program (almost eighty minutes) I can't carp, and instead view them as a welcome encore to such a satisfying program.

A word about the featured performer: J had not heard Patrice Michaels Bedi before, and I was completely won over by these performances. Her instrument is beautifully shaped, balanced, and focused, never becoming shrill in high register, projecting in the softest passages. Her intonation is near perfect and her diction crystal clear. I find her a major talent for interpretation of American vocal music. The remaining performers contribute with great skill and sensitivity, and the sound is almost ideal. Cedille is devoted to showcasing musical talent from the Chicago area, and this disc reminds us of what a wealth of great music-making occurs in that great city, so often out of the limelight focused on both coasts. Highly recommended.

Fanfare: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Letters from Composers by Dominick Argento
Performer:  Patrice Michaels (Soprano), Jeffrey Kust (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1968; USA 
Language: English 
To be Sung upon the Water by Dominick Argento
Performer:  Larry Combs (Clarinet), Patrice Michaels (Soprano), Elizabeth Buccheri (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1972; USA 
Language: English 
Vocalises (3) for Soprano and Clarinet by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Performer:  Larry Combs (Clarinet), Patrice Michaels (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; England 
Along the field by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Performer:  Elliott Golub (Violin), Patrice Michaels (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
Language: English 
Notes: Composition written: England (1927).
Composition revised: England (1954). 
Songs about Spring by Dominick Argento
Performer:  Elizabeth Buccheri (Piano), Patrice Michaels (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1950-1955; USA 
Language: English 

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