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Craig URQUHART (b. 1953)
Secret and Divine Sign

Streamwalker (introduction) [0:52]
Here the Frailest Leaves of Me [1:57] *
Sometimes with One I Love [1:47] *
O You to Whom I Often and Silently Come [3:29] *
I’ll tell you how the Sun rose [1:57] *
Pas de deux [2:49]
Split the Lark [2:14] *
Vesper Hymn [3:31]
Among the Multitude [2:08] *
Far from Love [2:13] *
Venetian Snowfall [4:46]
Sleeping Rose [2:12] *
The Dalliance of Eagles [3:01]
Piano [3:55] *
Across the Fields [2:04] *
Secret Spaces [5:42]
Adrift, a little boat adrift! [2:44] *
On this wondrous sea [1:51] *
The Awakening [2:09]
It’s all I have to bring today – (An American Blessing) [1:23] *
Michael Slattery (tenor)*; Craig Urquhart (piano)
rec. Klavierhaus, New York, 21-22 September 2005
AVIE AV2088 [52:47]

 

In any response to the music of Craig Urquhart, it seems unavoidable that one should mention his connections with Leonard Bernstein.

Born and brought up in Michigan, Urquhart moved to New York City after gaining a Master’s in Composition at the University of Michigan; he left some of his music with the doorman at the Dakota, where Bernstein lived, in hopes that the maestro would look at it. He did, liked it, and invited the young composer to one of his concerts. In 1985 Urquhart became Bernstein’s P.A. and continued to act as such until Bernstein’s death in 1990. To this day, Urquhart composes at a Bösendorfer grand formerly owned by Bernstein.

If Urquhart’s own music has any affinity with Bernstein’s it perhaps resides in its refusal to be bound by conventional generic and stylistic boundaries. In another sense, Bernstein was clearly an important influence, responsible for giving Urquhart the necessary confidence to be true to himself as a composer. In an interview with Kathy Parsons Urquhart gives the following account of an early conversation with Bernstein:

"Lenny said, ‘There seem to be two people here. There is somebody who writes beautiful songs, and there is somebody who writes this twelve-tone stuff.’ My secret was out! I couldn’t hide my real musical language from him. He said, ‘You really need to write from the heart, and not from the head.’ I had done all of the academic work – 12 tone, atonal, music where you draw cards and everyone improvises – and things like that, so I went back to the music that I wrote as a child, and went into the harmonic languages there. That’s what I built my music on after that – that sense of childhood tonality that I had."

The resulting idiom is often beautiful but is emotionally somewhat narrow. It occupies a territory which borders on one side on, say, Chopin, Debussy, Satie and perhaps the Koechlin of Les Heures Persanes and on the other such New Age piano work as that of Phil Aaberg or George Winston. The music is graceful, often imbued with an inner melancholy, largely devoid of major climaxes, with frequent silences allowing notes and phrases space to resonate.

Though the major emphasis here is on Urquhart the song-writer, the CD also contains five samples of Urquhart’s solo piano music of which several previous CDs have been issued – e.g. Streamwalker, The Dream of the Ancient Ones, Songs Without Words, Epitaphs and Portraits and Evocation. The piano pieces are carefully integrated into the programme – so that, for instance, the piano piece ‘Vesper Hymn’ prepares the ground harmonically for the immediately ensuing song ‘Among the Multitude’.

Individual songs by Urquhart have already been recorded by, for example, Thomas Hampson - on his programme of Whitman settings, To the Soul, on EMI - but this is the first substantial selection to be recorded. The songs recorded here include settings of poems by Emily Dickinson (five), Walt Whitman (four), D. H. Lawrence (one), Herman Hesse (one) and the contemporary American, Ron Draddy (one). All texts are provided.

Urquhart’s settings respect the rhythms and phrase structures of the original poems, and his understanding of his texts is everywhere evident. Michael Slattery is a fine young tenor, who has already made a very favourable impression in the baroque repertoire. Here he is recorded very close to the microphone; the breathy sound which results is entirely appropriate to the intimacy which characterises these settings. These are songs of great innerness, not declamatory pieces; Slattery sings with subtlety, sweetness of tone and conviction. There is perhaps too much similarity of theme and method for this to be a CD which will regularly be listened to from beginning to end, but dipped into it offers some beautiful readings. Love poems both of excitement and disillusionment, anticipation and memory, receive well-judged settings and accomplished performances, and the results make for rewarding listening.

Glyn Pursglove

 



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