I have already been able to review a number
of recordings of Larry Bell’s orchestral and chamber music.
This is however the first disc featuring his vocal music and
including works from both ends of his composing career.
The earliest work
here, Four Sacred Songs Op.20, composed in 1984,
was written “as studies for a larger orchestral work”: Sacred
Symphonies Op.23 available on VMM 3016 reviewed here
some time ago. Each song is a setting of a familiar - to American
ears at least - hymn tune text. As might be expected, these
settings are generally simple and straightforward, as befits
the popular origin of the texts. The composer can nevertheless
take one by surprise, as in the inconclusive coda of the overtly
optimistic second song, whereas the third song Stand up,
stand up, for Jesus is considerably more tense and harmonically
more astringent. The final song, in much the same vein as the
opening one, provides an appeased, meditative conclusion.
Beloved Op.50 is based on the three letters that Beethoven
wrote to Antonie Brentano in July 1912. The music is “permeated
with references to Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne
Geliebte” briefly quoted at the very end of the third
and final song. This is not the first time that Bell has written
a piece inspired by or alluding to older composers’ life and
works: Mahler puts in an appearance in the trio Mahler
in Blue Light Op.43 and Late Night and Thoughts
Op.35. By so doing, he somewhat puts himself in the
shade although his own personality is by no mean obliterated.
Bell nevertheless stays somewhat in the background, particularly
in this song-cycle.
The third song-cycle
recorded here is more recent still. Songs of Time and
Eternity Op.64 sets words by Emily Dickinson. The composer
says that “songs 2, 3 and 4 are preoccupied with the afterlife
and a healthy religious scepticism” whereas “the perspective
of songs 1 and 5 ranges from a childlike wonder about the future
to an adult’s obsessions with romantic memory”. Sorry for this
long quote, but these words perfectly sum up the emotional and
poetic content of the cycle. As a consequence, the music is
remarkably varied and contrasted, at times disarmingly simple
in the beautiful first song Will there really be a “Morning”
which brought Samuel Barber to mind. It is slightly ironic in
the second song Going to Heaven!, utterly serious and
dramatic in the third song - probably the most classically conceived
of the entire cycle - somewhat troubled in the fourth song (hints
of John Ireland here) and warmly lyrical in the beautifully
moving final song.
The most striking
characteristic of these three song-cycles is the singer-friendly,
expressive vocal writing that flows almost effortlessly, with
telling effects in spite of some deceptively simple inner logic.
Larry Bell’s gift
for memorable tunes is again put to good use in Songs
of Innocence and Experience Op.55, a joint
commission from the New England Conservatory Preparatory School
and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Ii is scored for children’s
chorus and orchestra, although there also exists a version for
soprano and piano (Ten Poems of William Blake
Op.53). The work falls into two parts of clearly different
character: Songs of Innocence and Songs of
Experience. The former is appropriately lighter in mood
and playful, whereas the latter is more serious and weighty,
with at its centre a solo setting The Sick Rose as well
as a splendid treatment of The Tyger. The cantata concludes
with a beautiful setting of The Voice of the Ancient Bard.
The music is supremely crafted for young performers yet with
enough to challenge their performing skills and make it worth
the effort. Just listen to what these youngsters make of the
often tricky rhythms of Spring. The two solo items, Infant
Joy in the first part and The Sick Rose in the second
part are sung with considerable aplomb. This is a very attractive
work, much in the same vein as Howard Blake. It generously repays
its young performers’ efforts and makes for a most rewarding
experience for players and listeners alike.
With the pianist-composer
in command, these readings of the three song-cycles have a definite
ring of authenticity, and are warmly recorded. The energy and
commitment of the young performers in the Blake cantata is slightly
let down by what I think is a live recording, though the recorded
sound is quite acceptable. This does not in any way diminish
their formidable achievement.
In short, a generously
filled release that sheds light on another facet of Larry Bell’s
varied output. As I have already mentioned in earlier reviews,
his music is tuneful, colourful, expressive and inventive for
all its classical layout.