Monday 4 November 2019

A distinct voice: Emergence, Nadine Benjamin & Nicole Panizza in settings of Emily Dickinson

Emergence - Emily Dickinson - Nadine Benjamin, Nicole Panizza - Stone Records
Emergence - Aaron Copland, Luigi Zaninelli, Juliana Hall, Sylvia GLickman, Ell Jarman-Pinto; Nadine Benjamin, Nicole Panizza; Stone Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 October 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An intriguing and enterprising collection of Emily Dickinson settings, 30 songs from five 20th and 21st century composers

The poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) has a very particular voice, slightly sharp edged perhaps and not quite as comfortable as many 19th century women poets. She was a poet of the ordinary and the everyday, often concise and intense but with poems that cover a wide range. Her verse has, understandably, been popular with composers. This new disc, Emergence, on Stone Records, from soprano Nadine Benjamin and pianist Nicole Panizza assembles together Dickinson settings from five 20th century and contemporary composers, Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Luigi Zaninelli (born 1932), Juliana Hall (born 1958), Sylvia Glickman (1932-2008) and Ella Jarman-Pinto (born 1989). The composers are all Amemrican-based (except for Jarman-Pinto), and the songs very much seem to explore an unfolding tradition, just as you could probably focus on songs setting certain English poets and see the English tradition of setting them. The result is imaginative and intriguing, and gives us a chance to explore a song tradition still not well known in the UK. A similar disc based around Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs anyone?

The best known work on the disc is the opening one, Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, written in 1950 and Copland's longest work for solo voice (it was his first work for solo voice and piano since 1928!). The twelve songs are all relatively short, with Copland seeming to enjoy Dickinson's brevity and directness. There is no overarching theme, instead it ranges widely of ideas which were common in Dickinson: nature, death, life, eternity.

Now I have a confession, I have always found the cycle difficult to love, whilst I realise that there is much to admire.
From the outset with just the voice and a single musical line in the piano, the work's composer is clear and Copland's voice comes over as strongly as Dickinson's. Each poem is admirably set, with Copland deftly setting the emotional temperature, and both Benjamin and Panizza impress with their commitment to the music. Benjamin brings out the strongly shaped vocal lines, and there is something neo-classical almost hieratic in the music. Dickinson's authorial voice can often be rather trenchant, and this music is neither comfortable, nor cosy, and both performers respond admirably.

Luigi Zaninelli studied at the Curtis Institute with Gian Carlo Menotti and Rosario Scalero (Menotti and Samuel Barber's teacher). His Seven Epigrams of Emily Dickinson set not her poetry but her epigrams. This means that each song is tiny, all but one under two minutes in duration. Zaninelli's music is quite spare, and often chromatic with angular vocal lines. There are also some lovely textures, with the penultimate song being quiet and intense, and with the delicately lyrical final song proving to be something of an ear worm.

I had come across Juliana Hall before, as Kitty Whately sang some of her songs at the Wigmore Hall [see my review]. Here we get her cycle of three Emily Dickinson settings To meet a flower, her song A Northeast Storm and her cycle of five poems In Reverence. To meet a flower was originally part of a longer cycle which Nadine Benjamin and pianist Susanna Sanders premiered at the 2016 London Festival of American Music. The opening song is delicate, but with a sense of structure in the way voice and piano follow the drama. The second is fast and vivid, rather spare with angular lines and a striking piano postlude, whilst the final one is slow and serious, with evocative textures. A Northeast Storm sets part of a letter which Dickinson wrote to her brother Austin telling of a dramatic storm at home. Benjamin brings out the strong narrative in the piece, and there are some rather interesting harmonic colour in the song. Finally, in this group, In Reverence, Hall's cycle which is her earliest published work written in 1985 whilst still a student. Here we have a greater angularity in the writing (Hall's style seemed to have softened somewhat over the years without lessening the complexity). The songs are often quiet and intense.

Sylvia Glickman's Black Cake: A Recipe by Emily Dickinson is serious fun. It is a real recipe, and evidently works, perhaps we should have a themed recital which includes recipes set to music and the food that results!

The final work on the disc moves the songs into a different style, here we have a real sense of gentle blues. The Little Rose was written by Ella Jarman-Pinto at the vibrant Caer Llan Jazz Workshop in Wales, and then workshopped by Nico Muhly at the Barbican in 2010.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) - Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson
Luigi Zaninelli (born 1932) - Seven Epigrams of Emily Dickinson
Juliana Hall (born 1958) - To Meet a Flower
Juliana Hall - A Northeast Storm
Juliana Hall - In Reverence
Sylvia Glickman (1932-2006) - Black Cake: A Recipe by Emily Dickinson
Ella Jarman-Pinto (born 1989) - This Little Rose
Nadine Benjamin (soprano)
Nicole Panizza (piano)
Recorded 19-24 July 2018, Steinway Recording Studios, Fulbeck, Lincolnshire
STONE RECORDS 5060192780864 1CD [78.50]

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Elsewhere on this blog
  • The Exiled Outsiders: music by Hans Gál, Max Kowalski, Peter Gellhorn at London Song Festival  (★★★★) - concert review
  • An artist should be careful not to put themselves in a box: I chat to tenor Leonardo Capalbo about the challenges of singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos - interview
  • Kiandra Howarth takes first prize at the Grange Festival International Singing Competition - my article
  • 'The first great example of British exceptionalism': Purcell's King Arthur re-thought in an engaging performance and accompany CDs from Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli  (★★★★★)  - CD & Opera review
  • A ravishing and heart-rending evening: Massenet's Manon from the Met, Live in HD (★★★★) - opera review
  • A remarkable reinvention: Verdi's Don Carlos in French in Flanders (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Eccentric, passionate harpsichordist, in a ménage à cinq: the lives of Violet Gordon-Woodhouse - feature article
  • An intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song: Walt Whitman's bicentenary celebrated at London Song Festival  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Valuable first thoughts: John Butt & the Dunedin Consort record every note of Samson as Handel first performed it  (★★★★★) CD review
  • Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place (★★) - concert review
  • The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital  (★★) - CD review
  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
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