Saturday 9 March 2013

Much to savour - Madrigali dell'Estate - CD Review

CHRCD053 - Madrigali dell'Estate - Clare McCaldin, Stephen McNeff
2013 is the 150 anniversary of the birth of Gabriele D'Annunzio. Poet, Italian patriot, politician, war hero, bad boy, D'Annunzio has a huge linguistic and stylistic influence in Italy. So it is apt that this new disc from mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin on the Champs Hill label showcases composer Stephen McNeff's D'Annunzio settings, Madrigali dell'Estate accompanied by pianist Andrew West. The remainder of the disc also features McCaldin in music by McNeff including further settings of D'Annunzio as well as the Shelley themed monodrama A Voice of One Delight, where McCaldin is accompanied by members of Orchestra Nova, conducted by George Vass.

McNeff initially wrote Farfalle di Neve for McCaldin. Commissioned for a recital at Covent Garden, McNeff set extracts from two poems by D'Annunzio. Discovering a shared love of D'Annunzio's poetry, which McNeff describes as a language 'both natural and strangely exotic'. So for another Covent Garden recital McNeff created the far more ambitious Madrigali dell'Estate setting 11 of D'Annunzio's poems (originally published in Alcyone in 1904).

The Italian theme to McNeff and McCaldin's collaboration continued in 2010 during McCaldin's residency at the Presteigne Festival (artistic director George Vass), creating the monodrama A Voice of One Delight about the poet Shelley's final days combining the poet's poems with eyewitness accounts of the poet's death and bizarre funeral on the beach. Finally, there is a group of new setting of traditional Abruzzo folk-songs in dialect.

The disc opens with the Madrigali dell'Estate (Summer Madrigals). The opening supplication to spring is highly declamatory with the voice at first unaccompanied. When the piano does come in it does not support and accompany the voice, instead it interjects and comments. Here, and for the whole cycle, McNeff's vocal writing is rather expressionist. Sympathetically lyrical but using rather edgy combinations of intervals; expressive but not easy. The result, in McCaldin's hands, is rather expressive and entirely consistent in style through the whole disc. In Madrigali dell'Estate, though McNeff does write songs where the piano supports the voice, the prevailing style is either for the piano to interject or to play above McCaldin with the voice acting as the bass line. The piano writing is chromatic and dissonant, with tone clusters much in evidence but McNeff's writing is highly sympathetic to the voice and there is never any sense of a competition or a shouting match.

In the second song, The Sands of Time, the high piano part ripples like light on water, whilst McCaldin's vocal line become lyrically impassioned. This texture continues into the third song The Footprint but with increasing spareness. This is a characteristic of the cycle, McNeff does not feel the need to fill up the space, allowing the music and D'Annunzio's poetry time to breathe. Another feature of his setting is the way he highlights words and phrases, repeating them and taking them out of order.

McCaldin's Italian is wonderfully clear, I gather that she does speak the language but you really do need to comprehend the language, so I had to follow the English translation. McNeff evokes the various images in Gabriele D'Annunzio's poems, so that the music is by turns declamatory, dramatic, luminous and haunting. In The Wind Writes, you imagine the shape of the vocal line evoking the wind. The poem Sea Lanterns about the jellyfish has its curious nebulous quality perfectly captured. 

With the final two settings, In the slime and The Grecian grape we return to the textures of the opening song, with the voice becoming more unaccompanied and finally melody replaced by speech in In the slime and the entire cycle ending on a quietly understated note. This is a substantial work, one which responds to the richness of Gabriele D'Annunzio's poetry and which needs time to savour and appreciate.

McCaldin's voice is a rich mezzo-soprano with a very expressive vibrato and darkly dramatic character. She articulates the poetry very clearly and vividly, though the voice is not innately Italianate sounding, being a more clear, less vibrant English in character. This, combined with her highly intelligent approach to the music, gives the performances a fascinatingly layered feel. 

For Farfalle di Neve (Butterflies like Snowflakes) we have a very evocative string accompaniment, full of undulating textures and harmonics. In terms style, the piece is similar to Madrigali dell'Estate but the strings bring a very different feel and colour. The second poem, from Psiche Gicaente, is set by McNeff in a wonderfully eerie fashion, rather cool with plenty of space round the music and words.

A Voice of One Delight attempts to present the happenings of Shelley's final hours from a female point of view. His poetry from the period is dedicated to Jane Williams, the wife of his friend Edward Williams who also died on the boat with Shelley. McNeff sets the poems interlinked with spoken passages taken from the eye-witness account of Edward John Trelawney but spoken by McCaldin. (You can see excerpts from a stage version of the work on YouTube with a slightly different linking narrative). The piece is accompanied by instrumental ensemble.

McNeff sets the spoken sections as melodrama, which is something of a delight, so that the musical ideas are continuous throughout. I was very taken with the piece and enjoyed the intermingling to speech and melody, I have always felt that melodrama is a neglected genre. What I found slightly disturbing was that, as recorded on the disc, McCaldin's spoken voice is rather different from her sung one and that her diction in English does not seem to match that in Italian. 

The piece captures the passion and the exoticism of the events, with the poetry running as a thread through the work alongside the tragic and at times bizarre events, culminating in Shelley's funeral on the beach (because of quarantine regulations).

Finally, and perhaps most daringly, we get three modern versions of Abruzzo folk songs, sung by McCaldin unaccompanied and in Abruzzo dialect. McNeff's re-workings sound so natural and expressive in McCaldin's hands that you half expect to come across her singing them when walking in the Italian countryside.

The CD booklet comes with extensive notes on the music, on Shelley and on D'Annunzio, plus full texts and translations for the songs, but you don't get the text of the spoken passages in A Voice of One Delight. My only grouse is that nowhere is it made clear who is playing on which track, which is a little annoying.

This is a daring and striking disc, wonderfully enterprising in its repertoire and superb in execution. For anyone interested in modern song-writing, the disc is a music.

Madrigale dell'Estate - music for voice by Stephen McNeff
Madrigali dell'Estate (2009) [33.07]
Farfalle di Neve (2007) [7.01]
A Voice of One Delight (2010) [23.13]
Three Abruzzo Folk-Songs (2012) [8.03]
Clare McCaldin (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew West (piano)
Orchestra Nova Ensemble
George Vass (conductor)

Recorded 1-3 October 2013 in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex.

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