Sunday 22 December 2019

A hugely rewarding journey: I and Silence, Marta Fontanals Simmons & Lana Bode in Aaron Copland, Dominick Argento, Peter Lieberson, Samuel Barber, and George Crumb

I and Silence: Women's voices in American song - Copland, Argento, Barber, Lieberson, Crumb; Marta Fontanals Simmons, Lana Bode; Delphian
I and Silence: Women's voices in American song - Copland, Argento, Barber, Lieberson, Crumb; Marta Fontanals Simmons, Lana Bode; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A hugely imaginative and ambitious debut disc, which combines two major contemporary American song cycles

This imaginative disc takes its title, I and Silence, from a phrase in one of Emily Dickinson's poems set by Aaron Copland. The disc gives us music by five 20th century American male composers, but also embodies the disc's subtitle, Women's Voices in American Song. Three of the women so embodied are writers, Emily Dickinson whose work is set by Copland in Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf whose work is set by Dominick Argento in From the diary of Virigina Woolf, and Sara Teasdale who is set by George Crumb in one of his Three Early Songs.

Two of the women embodied are singers. Peter Lieberson's cycle Rilke Songs was written for his wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with her voice completely in mind, and Hunt Lieberson was very much identified with the cycle. Dominick Argento's cycle, From the diary of Virginia Woolf, was written for the mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, who gave the work's first performance and again, Argento had Baker's artistry in mind when creating the work.

On this Delphian disc, I and Silence: Women's voices in American song, we have the British-Spanish mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals Simmons and American-British pianist Lana Bode performing three of Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Barber's Nocturne, Peter Lieberson's Rilke Songs, and George Crumb's Let it be forgotten from Three Early Songs.
I have to confess that the disc was released in August 2019, and Marta Fontanals Simmons is very much a singer whose career I have followed, [I interviewed her in 2018, saw her as Hel in Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden, and caught her recently in Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall], but, rather embarrassingly this disc somehow got pushed to the side.
Aaron Copland's Twelve poems of Emily Dickinson, written in the late 1940s, are not the most loveable of song cycles, but the three songs here, 'Why do they shut me out of heaven?', 'The world feels dusty',  and 'I felt a funeral in my brain' make a wonderfully strong start to the disc.

Emily Dickinson's voice comes over powerfully in the performances, Copland's music seeming to underline the directness of the poet's utterance. Fontanals Simmons sings with a lovely straight, direct tone which makes the most of the words. The neo-classical clarity of the music serves Dickinson's words well, and singer and pianist make a strong, powerful combination in this terrifically direct music.

Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virigina Woolf was written in 1974, setting the composer's own selection of texts from the diary, moving from the very first entry in 1919 to the poignant final one. The voice that we hear is very much an amalgam of that of Woolf and Argento, as his complex music surrounds and modulates the voice of Woolf. I have to confess that whilst I love these songs, the voice I hear is somewhat different to the rather dry tone of Woolf which I pick up when reading her diary. This is complex music (based on a tone row) written for a highly expressive singer.

Here Marta Fontals Simmons proves more than able, she and Lana Bode navigate Argento's music deftly (the cycle has been in the artists' repertoire for several years) and expressively, bringing out the quicksilver emotionalism of Woolf's writings, full of non-sequiturs as her mind turned from one to another. The directness of Fontanals Simmons performance brings the words to the fore, though in some Argento is more invasive than Copland in the way he sets the texts. Compared to some performances I have heard, Fontanals Simmons and Bode come over as a little more balanced. Their account of the second song, 'Anxiety' is poised and beautifully crafted, yet not quite a neurotic as it might be. But there are some wonderfully dramatic moments such as the opening of 'Fancy', and they are nicely skittish in 'Rome' with its cafe-bar piano accompaniment. 'Parents' is profoundly touching, and the 'Last Entry' is both strong and intense, yet with moving memories of early songs, whilst not ignoring the sheer bathos of the discussion of haddock and sausage meat.

I still wonder what Baker would have sounded like [there is a disc, but it is currently on Amazon for over £80], but her absence leaves space for younger performers.

With Peter Lieberson's Rilke Songs we know what Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sounded like in them [she performs them with Peter Serkin on a disc of Lieberson's music available from Amazon], and a young singer must measure themselves against these performances, finding their own route through the songs. I have to admit that occasionally with Lieberson's settings I find his use of Rilke's German a little obfuscating, and feel that given Marta Fontanals Simmons wonderfully empathetic translation in the liner notes, that it is a shame that Lieberson did not use English for the songs.

Lieberson's style is intense, expressionist and clearly indebted to composer's like Mahler. Again the cycle explores changeability and contradiction though Rilke's texts are more consciously artful than Woolf's.  This is intense, chromatic music and both performers shape it beautifully, making Lieberson's lines seem fluidly obvious, emphasising the sheer lyricism of the music. Yet just occasionally I wanted a little more, perhaps an element of rawness to the tone, a moment of searing intensity to match words and music. Yet these are highly intelligent performances, which give great credit to the performers in what is a debut disc.

Complementing these are a pair of songs, Barber's ravishing Nocturne and George Crumb's remarkably lyrical Let it be forgotten.

As a complete recital this is hugely ambitious and hugely successful. And as a debut disc it really sets down a marker. For library recordings of the Argento and of the Lieberson you would probably go for an artist who provided a more lived in experience, yet Fontanals Simmons and Bode create a hugely rewarding journey through all these songs, giving voice to the various women embodied. This disc is a remarkable achievement

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) - from Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949-50)
Dominick Argento (1927-2019) - From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1974)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) - Nocturne (1941)
Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) - Rilke Songs (2001)
George Crumb (born 1929) - 'Let it be forgotten' from Three Early Songs (1947)
Marta Fontanals Simmons (mezzo-soprano)
Lana Bode (piano)
Recorded 26-29 January 2017, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings
DELPHIAN DCD24229 1CD [59.46]
Available from Amazon.

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