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Dominick ARGENTO (b.1927)
Shadow and Substance

Six Elizabethan Songs (1962)* [17:11]
Letters from Composers (1968)** [25:51}
To be Sung upon the Water (1973)*** [28:53]
Howard Haskin (tenor); *David Triestram (piano); ** Timothy Walker (guitar);*** David Triestram (piano) and Tansie Mayer (clarinet/bass clarinet)
rec. The Wathen Hall, St. Paul’s School, London (dates not specified). DDD
DEUX-ELLES DXL 1098 [72:00]
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As far as I am aware there’s not a great deal of music by the American composer, Dominick Argento on CD. Philip Brunelle and The Plymouth Music Series made an excellent disc for Virgin Classics in 1989 that included his Te Deum and the fine Variations for Orchestra (The Mask of Night). I hope EMI will one day reissue that disc.

Some years ago I picked up in the USA a recital disc by Dame Janet Baker on the d’Note label, which included Argento’s Pulitzer Prize-winning cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, but I suspect that’s long deleted. Such music of Argento’s that I have heard has impressed me, so I approached this disc containing three collections of songs for high voice with some anticipation.

The earliest cycle, Six Elizabethan Songs, is the most immediately attractive. In it Argento sets texts, most of them familiar, by such writers as Ben Jonson, Thomas Nash and Shakespeare. The vocal line is consistently appealing and, for the most part, lyrical. The opening song, ‘Spring’, is extrovert and gay while ‘Sleep’, which follows, is darker and more intense. Howard Haskin sings it well. The fourth song, ‘Dirge’, is a setting of Shakespeare’s text, ‘Come away, death’, which Argento makes into a desolate lament. That’s followed by a setting of Henry Constable’s ‘Diaphenia’, which here becomes a vigorous scherzo with a piano part that’s almost skittish. Having followed a fast-slow-fast scheme up to now, Argento maintains that formula. This means that the final song, Ben Jonson’s ‘Queen and Huntress, chaste and fair’ is slow in tempo. Argento makes it into a rather solemn, dignified song, justifying the title, ‘Hymn’. These are excellent and attractive songs. Like the rest of the music on the CD I hadn’t heard them before and I’m very glad to have done so.

Letters from Composers is a most interesting and imaginative idea. Here, Argento sets prose rather than poetry and his choice of texts is intriguing. As the title of the cycle indicates these are settings of actual letters from seven different composers. Thus we have Chopin writing to a friend from Palma, Majorca; Mozart writing to his father; correspondence from Schubert, Bach, Debussy and Puccini; and, finally, a most touching love letter from Robert Schumann to his beloved fiancée, Clara. The singer is accompanied by a guitar. As Malcolm MacDonald points out in his note this choice of accompaniment "suggests privacy, intimacy, the writer of each letter musing to himself in a way that perhaps no piano accompaniment could convey". Some of the settings include allusions to the style of the composer concerned and, in Schubert’s case, a direct quotation.

The topics of the letters vary quite widely. Thus, for example, Mozart gets very hot under the collar about his treatment at the hands of a patron and Howard Haskin conveys his anger and petulance well. He’s less successful, I think with the more introspective and unhappy words of Schubert. Here, not for the first time on the disc, I felt he sounded to be straining on some of the high notes. More on this later. We hear Puccini expressing his dislike of Parisian life and catch a glimpse of the ailing Debussy’s despair at the carnage of World War I. Finally the Schumann letter is made by Argento into a beautiful love song – which the letter is – with long melodic lines. It’s a wonderful song. The cycle is most certainly not an easy listen and I have to say that I’m not wholly convinced by the guitar accompaniment instead of the more conventional piano. This collection of songs remains a most original conception.

For To be Sung upon the Water Argento turns to just one poet, William Wordsworth. The cycle is subtitled ‘Barcarolles and Nocturnes’ and Malcolm MacDonald tells us that it describes an implied journey by boat. He also draws some intriguing parallels with Schubert. Once again the accompaniment is unusual: Argento adds a clarinet to the mix and, for extra colour, requires his player to double on bass clarinet. The first three songs are slow and serious. The fourth, described as a "liquid scherzo", mainly for clarinet and voice, with the piano joining in only at the very end, is in a faster tempo. The fifth song, entitled ‘In Remembrance of Schubert’, is a serene barcarolle and is followed by ‘Hymn near the Rapids’, which is dramatic and turbulent. The next song, ‘The Lake at Night’ begins with a clarinet cadenza. The song itself is a nocturne, which I thought had a rather eerie atmosphere. Finally ‘Epilogue: De Profundis’ is a powerful setting that eventually relaxes to achieve a quiet close. The songs are individual and not easy to grasp. I found that the musical language reminded me somewhat of Britten. I think I need a few more hearings to evaluate them fully as music but they seem to me to be a significant collection.

So this disc offers some interesting and eloquent music. Unfortunately, however, there’s a "but", and in my view it’s a rather significant "but". Howard Haskin has a clear, ringing voice with plenty of body and his diction is very good. However, quite frequently he sounds strained and effortful on high notes, especially when singing loudly. Moreover, on such notes there’s a tendency for the tone to spread so that the pitch is not fully settled. Also it sounds to me as if he approaches a number of high notes from slightly underneath the note. I’m afraid all this means that my enjoyment of his singing was less than full, which is a great pity since he evidently believes in the music and he sings with commitment. I’m always very well aware when making comments such as this that the human voice is a strange instrument and it can strike the ears of different listeners in different ways. I’m perfectly prepared to accept, therefore, that other people may react much more positively to Mr. Haskin’s singing. Indeed, I hope they do.

The recorded sound is good and the various accompanists do a very good job. Malcolm MacDonald contributes a fine note though I was mildly surprised that no dates of composition were given - I found them easily enough on the Boosey & Hawkes website – nor even the composer’s year of birth. Full texts are supplied, which is very welcome, though, as indicated earlier, Mr. Haskin’s diction is sufficiently good that for the most part one can get by without reference to the printed texts if necessary.

So, something of a mixed message. I applaud unreservedly both Deux-Elles and the artists for their enterprise in making this recording. I only wish I liked Howard Haskin’s singing more. Other listeners may not share my reservations and certainly admirers of this composer and, indeed, anyone with an interest in the contemporary song repertoire should investigate this release. However, my advice would be to sample before commitment.

John Quinn




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