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Seen and Heard Recital Review


“Songs Of The Americas”: Liebermann, Rorem, Bolcom, Guastavino, Lecuona, Carole Farley (soprano), Lowell Liebermann (piano), William Bolcom (piano), John Constable (piano), Fabio Zanon (guitar), Wigmore Hall, 1 June, 2005 (AO)


This was more than “just another recital”, for Carole Farley, herself a pianist and musician, brought together three leading American composers: the event was a meeting of creative minds. Ned Rorem was unable to attend at the last moment, but Simon Bainbridge - whose work Farley also admires – joined in the pre concert discussion on writing for voice. There were also a few British composers in the audience, one at least of whom has set similar poets.


Strangely enough, although Walt Whitman was one of the greatest American poets, his texts were first and most famously set by English composers. Lowell Liebermann has set many American poets, Langston Hughes, Melville, Stephen Crane, and even Longfellow, so it was a pleasure to hear his Whitman settings, Out of the cradle endlessly rocking (1992) and On the beach at night (2001). Vaughan Williams and Delius responded to Whitman’s elegiac verse with equally elegiac orchestral swathes of sound. Liebermann on the other hand, focuses on the voice part, his piano accompaniment lean and elegant. It would be interesting to hear if he does get around to orchestrating these songs, perhaps for chamber. On the beach at night, Delius’ Sea Drift, with its brooding, dark circular figures starkly sketched on piano, might be quite gorgeous. Passages in the voice part, like “the radiant sisters the Pleiades” have a quality like the twinkling of stars, stimulating vivid images in the listener. Liebermann’s skill as pianist is such that I imagine that performance enhances his writing.


It is striking to hear Whitman in a modern setting, a poet who for his time was himself avant-garde. To further emphasise the idea of Whitman as a poet with much to say for our times, Farley also chose three of Ned Rorem’s many Whitman settings. These much simpler poems lend themselves to Rorem’s epigrammatic style. Two Roethke poems showcased Rorem’s ability to write humorous songs that remain intelligent and dignified. Amusingly, Farley sang My Papa’s Waltz with a mock tango insouciance, a reminder of the South American songs to come. Far more complex was Visits to St Elizabeths, where Rorem matches Elizabeth Bishop’s quixotic words with a stalking, sinister rhythm. Like the Liebermann settings, this is not an easy song to sing or play, because Rorem brings out the deeper and more disturbing levels behind the verse. I was impressed that John Constable could substitute as pianist for the composer so effectively.


William Bolcom wrote the cycle I will breathe a mountain for Marilyn Horne but has recently recorded it again with Farley for Naxos. (To be reviewed shortly on Musicweb-international.) After the interval they performed some of the songs together with new ones such as Costa del Nowhere. They ignited Farley’s characteristic warmth and wit, and her natural exuberance. Her voice warmed still further in the songs to guitar by the Argentinian Carlos Guastavinho (d. 2000). The gentle lyricism of these songs belies a haunting sense of nostalgia. Most beautiful was Pueblito, mi pueblo.


With the Lecuona songs, Farley showed just how rich and lovely her singing can be. In performance, they were definitely the highlight of the recital. Songs like the lovely Siempre en mi corazón and En una noche así could become mainstream repertoire. Farley’s name will inevitably be linked to this composer, for it was she who unearthed his songs from obscurity, and who understood their potential. Her recording, with John Constable, was pitched as low as possible in her register, but here she kept to a more natural range, using the innate sensuality in her voice. The recording has grown on me with time, but I was still surprised to hear how much more attractive the songs sound live. Farley has also developed her approach, as good musicians who “sing from within” do. Constable’s talent for improvisation works well with her understanding of the way this music works, and its innate sense of freedom, something beyond traditional classical singing. Lecuona can change direction and rhythm on a pivot, as in a dance: Farley and Constable seem to have absorbed the style so well that it comes instinctively to them. La Camparsa meant a lot to the composer, who named his home after it. Farley explained that, to her, the song evoked a procession coming from a distance out of town and heading into the local plaza. She conveyed this by singing at first with hushed understatement, then unabashed joy, the lower reaches of her voice seeming to glow, “rítmico y sensual, como el amor." In an inspired touch of programming, the concert ended with a return to the discussion of poetry and music that started the evening. Lecuona wrote his own texts, but when he turned to greater poets than himself, his music reached a different level. Canción del amor triste, by the poet Juana de Ibarbouru is true art song, a dramatic showpiece, which Farley’s operatic background did full justice to.


Anne Ozorio

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)