Notes and Editorial Reviews
There’s more to Shakespeare’s songs than a hey-nonny-nonny, and the depth of the bard’s texts has inspired composers from well beyond the cultural borders of the English language. Nearly half of the Phoenix Bach Choir’s “Shakespeare in Song” disc offers intriguing music by composers who are neither English nor American. Chief among these is Switzerland’s Frank Martin, whose Songs of Ariel constitute a modern choral classic. These are haunting, harmonically unsettled settings, and for an example of the skill and beauty the Phoenix Bach Choir brings to this program, just listen to the wonderful intonation on the last chord of “Before You Can Say ‘Come’ and ‘Go’.”
Equally striking are the Four Shakespeare Songs from 1984 by the
self-proclaimed “semi-professional” Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (born 1963). This ranges from the subdued, slithery, chromatic writing of the first two items to—in the witches’ material from Macbeth—what Leonard Bernstein might have sounded like had he been a Scandinavian choral composer: swooping vocal lines over strong, irresistible rhythms. With all due respect to Howard Shore, Mäntyjärvi’s music is exactly what I would associate with the atmosphere of The Lord of the Rings.
The American Matthew Harris (born 1956) is another composer worth investigating more deeply, judging from the seven (out of many) of his Shakespeare songs offered here. Without ever sounding like a stylistic pastiche, the music sometimes evokes lilting Renaissance madrigals (“Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred”), sometimes English folk music (“When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy”), sometimes American country-western swing (“When Daffodils Begin to Peer”). Charles Bruffy and his choir make the most of these stylistic shifts; tenor Robert Comeaux even steps out with a pop-inflected solo in “O Mistress Mine,” with its touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The shorter works here, chief among them Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs, provide similar pleasure in a diversity of moods and styles (the obscure Alan Murray, 1890–1952, sets “O Mistress Mine” as a hymn tune). All of them convey Shakespeare’s texts with great intelligence and sensitivity, and the same must be said of the Phoenix Bach Choir, with its snug part-singing, buoyant rhythms, and a tone that shifts easily from gleaming light to deepest gloom. The SACD surround-sound recording places the choir in a spacious acoustic while allowing textual clarity, with a realism that gives the impression that actual human beings are with you, performing this deeply human music.
James Reel, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Shakespeare Songs by Matthew Harris
Phoenix Bach Choir
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1988; USA
Premier livre d'orgue: Book I, No. 1. Hark! hark! the lark
Premier livre d'orgue: Book II, No. 2. Tell me where is fancy bred
Premier livre d'orgue: Book V, No. 1. I shall no more to sea
Premier livre d'orgue: Book V, No. 4. When that I was and a little tiny boy
Premier livre d'orgue: Book III, No. 1. It was a lover and his lass
Premier livre d'orgue: Book III, No. 4. O mistress mine!
Premier livre d'orgue: Book IV, No. 3. When daffodils begin to peer
Ariel: I. 's Song - Come unto these yellow sands
Ariel: II. Full fathom five
Ariel: III. Before you can say, 'Come,' and 'Go'
Ariel: IV. You are three men of sin
Ariel: V. Where the bee sucks, there suck
4 Shakespeare Songs: Come Away, come away, death
4 Shakespeare Songs: Lullaby
4 Shakespeare Songs: Double, double toil and trouble
4 Shakespeare Songs: Full fathom five
O Mistress mine: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Sonnet No. 64: Sonnet No. LXIV
3 Shakespeare Songs: Full fathom five
3 Shakespeare Songs: The cloud-capp'd towers
3 Shakespeare Songs: Over hill, over dale
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