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David DEL TREDICI (b. 1937)
Final Alice (1976) (1. 'The King & Queen of Hearts were seated on their throne'; 2. 'Consider your verdict'; 3. ‘They told me you had been to her' (Aria I); 4. 'She's all my fancy painted him' (Aria II); 5. 'She's all my fancy painted her' (Aria III); 6. Fuga; 7. 'She's all my fancy painted her'; 8. 'A boat 'neath a sunny sky' (Aria IV, ‘Acrostic Song’))
Barbara Hendricks (soprano)
Folk group: Fred Hemke, Robert Black (soprano saxophones); Fred Spector (mandolin); Frederic Chrislip (tenor banjo); Herman Troppe (accordion)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. January 1980, Medinah Temple, Chicago, USA. English texts provided
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9955 [59:07]
Experience Classicsonline

American composer David Del Tredici’s fascination with Lewis Carroll borders on the obsessive. He has composed no less than four major Alice works: Pop-Pourri (An Alice Symphony), 1969; Adventures Underground, 1971; Vintage Alice, 1972; and Final Alice, 1976. But wait, there’s one more – Child Alice, written between 1977 and 1981.
Since then Del Tredici, considered the father of neo-Romanticism, has broadened his horizons, setting contemporary American poets – often with a gay sensibility – and venturing into solo piano and chamber works as well. He is not very well represented in the CD catalogue at present, which makes this Eloquence reissue of Final Alice so very welcome.
Composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in America’s bicentennial year Final Alice is a daunting work for large orchestra, folk ensemble and soprano/narrator. What makes this recording so exceptional is that Barbara Hendricks plays both roles; it’s quite an achievement, given that performances usually include a separate narrator.
As for Solti – the work’s dedicatee – his Chicago years produced some fine recordings, although his somewhat driven style of conducting is not universally admired. In Final Alice it’s hard to believe he was ever dubbed ‘the screaming skull’, such is the warmth and spontaneity of this performance. Both he and Hendricks actually sound as if they are having fun, and the result is a most rewarding hour of spectacular music-making.
There is also a darker, more serious side to Final Alice. Arias I, II and IV are Carroll poems, the text of Aria I the only one to appear in the Alice story. According to the composer’s detailed liner-notes the source for the second and third arias is a sentimental Victorian poem by William Mee, Alice Gray, which deals with a man’s unrequited love for a young girl called Alice. Of course Carroll’s decision to use the first line of this poem as the springboard for his own verse is not fortuitous, adding a terrible poignancy to this multi-layered score.
This ‘opera written in concert form’ opens with Hendricks’ clearly enunciated, deliciously precocious narration of the trial from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Gradually the orchestra makes its presence felt, almost as if it’s tuning up during this introduction. The sonorities are very strange indeed, with some distinctive brass harmonies and unusual colours. The early digital recording is detailed and atmospheric, making it so much easier to engage with the composer’s eccentric sound world.
The temptation in narration of this kind must be to exaggerate but Hendricks – who took part in the premiere – keeps vocal mannerisms to a minimum. She is delightfully squeaky as the dormouse objecting to the growing Alice and commandingly regal when the king flies into a rage at the end of track 3.  As if that weren’t taxing enough she sings with astonishing agility and purity of tone in ‘The Accusation’ and the confused pronouns of Aria I.
In Aria II, produced as ‘evidence’ for the court, Hendricks alternates between dazzling embellishment and vehement outbursts, underpinned by some bracing sonorities from the orchestra. After a brief narrative she launches into a variation on the second aria. This is music of great longing, encapsulated in the words, ‘O my heart, my heart is breaking’. Hendricks imbues the text with considerable feeling. This is the other side of Alice – the subtext if you like – and it’s indescribably moving.
Briefly we move back to the surreal proceedings of the court and the wickedly funny ‘suppression’ of the guinea-pig juror who dared to cheer. Cue drum thwacks and riotous. Orff-like orchestral effects, through which Hendricks still manages to make herself heard. One marvels at these vocal fireworks, which she essays with such style and accuracy.
After the lively orchestral fugue the court asks to hear more ‘evidence’; cue a reprise of 'She's all my fancy painted her', now more impassioned than ever, with the final cry, ‘Ye Gods! She is divine!’ The dynamic range of the fugal movement – from the splash of percussion right down to the rasping low brass – is very wide indeed, and in the confrontation between Alice and the pack of cards Solti whips his orchestra into an absolute frenzy. Remarkably the Chicagoans keep it all together, even as pandemonium reigns.
Alice’s return to ‘dull reality’ is followed by the so-called ‘Acrostic song’ the first letter of each line spelling out the name ALICE PLEASANCE LIDDELL. It is gloriously rich and Romantic and Hendricks continues to astound with her vocal dexterity; just listen to her breath control in that long, sustained phrase that begins at 3:01. Thereafter we plunge back into an orchestral passage filled with turmoil and dark discord. It defies all categorisation, confirming Final Alice as a one-off, a true original.
All credit to the Decca team for doing this piece proud and to Australian Eloquence for returning it to the catalogue. Not to be missed.
Dan Morgan


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