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‘I Will Breathe a Mountain’

Samuel BARBER (1910-81): The Daisies, Op. 2 No.1; A Nun takes the Veil, Op. 13 No.1; Bessie Bobtail, Op.2 No.3; The Secrets of the Old, Op. 13 No. 2; Sure on this Shining Night, Op. 13, No.3; I hear an Army, Op 10, No3; Dover beach, Op. 3*
William BOLCOM (b.1938) Song Cycle: ‘I Will Breathe a Mountain’
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-90): My House (from Peter Pan); So Pretty; Greeting; Take Care of This House (from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue); Rabbit at Top Speed; Sonnet: What Lips my Lips have Kissed; Nachspiel; Dream with Me.
Marilyn Horne (mezzo soprano); Martin Katz (piano); *The Tokyo String Quartet
Recorded: 13 & 16 December 1993 at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Barber & Bolcom); 20 February 1994 at Manhattan Center, New York (Dover Beach); 15 November 1996 at Clinton Recording Studios, New York (Bernstein)
RCA Red Seal 09026 68771-2 [68.04]

The mezzo, Marilyn Horne, has enjoyed a varied and illustrious career, particularly on the operatic stage where she has been renowned particularly for her work in the bel canto repertoire. On disc, at least, opportunities to hear her in recital have been more rare and so this new CD is to be welcomed, particularly as the choice of music is enterprising.

Performing with her long-standing recital partner, Martin Katz (except in ‘Dover Beach’) Miss Horne gives a succession of wholly involved and involving performances. In particular, without ever overstepping the mark, she brings to these songs all the dramatic range and fervour which comes from a lifetime’s experience on the stage. She has a fabulous technique, which the Bolcom songs in particular exploit to the full, and though the earliest of these recordings was made when she was 64 there is little or no sign of wear in the voice.

The informative notes point out that Leonard Bernstein actually wrote surprisingly few art songs. He is represented here by items from a variety of sources, including two of his less successful shows. Even in the items which are not directly derived from musicals, Broadway is never too far away, one feels. Bernstein wore his heart on his sleeve pretty consistently, both as a composer and performer, and all the items here communicate directly with the listener. The vivid communication is intensified by Horne’s performances. She is especially moving in ‘What Lips my Lips have Kissed’ from Songfest (1976), a piece apparently conceived with her voice in mind.

I have listened several times now to the Bolcom songs and still can’t make up my mind about them. They were written to mark the centenary of Carnegie Hall and specifically for Marilyn Horne to sing. She asked for a cycle setting poems by women poets and helped to make the choice of texts. Bolcom encompasses a wide variety of styles in the cycle of 11 poems and is quoted in the notes as saying that "Each poem pulls a different vocabulary out of me. I can’t do it in one style. I need them all." This seems to me to be entirely reasonable and valid but the wide range of styles is a bit disconcerting. At present, the songs which I find the most effective are the more lyrical ones such as ‘Never more will the Wind’ and the setting of Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Bustle in a House’, a text chosen by Marilyn Horne herself. Even in the songs which don’t at present appeal to me so strongly the writing is undeniably clever and effective and the songs are given virtuoso performances by Horne and Katz (some of the piano writing sounds fearsome!). This, I presume, is the first recording of the work and it is hard to imagine that it could have been better served.

The disc opens with the Barber items and I don’t think it’s just greater familiarity that makes me feel that these songs are the best music in the collection. All the songs here come from Barber’s early career and Miss Horne gives marvellous performances. She is majestic and exalted in ‘A Nun takes the Veil’ and gives the most bitingly dramatic account of ‘Bessie Bobtail’ that I have ever heard. For my money ‘Sure on the Shining Night’ is one of the greatest of all twentieth century songs and it receives a dedicated and eloquent performance here which is fully worthy of the song.

I have never heard ‘Dover Beach’ sung by any other kind of voice apart from a baritone but here Marilyn Horne, with distinguished accompaniment by the Tokyo Quartet, fully vindicates its inclusion in her programme. She sings it, as she sings everything else in the recital, with a consummate care for the words and with rich tone.

A most stimulating disc, containing some first class performances. Warmly recommended.

John Quinn

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