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
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
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
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.