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Larry BELL (b. 1952)
The Immortal Beloved Op.50 (1999)a [16:46]
Four Sacred Songs Op.20 (1984)a [14:30]
Songs of Time and Eternity Op.64 (2002)a [12:21]
Songs of Innocence and Experience Op.55 (2000)b [21:25]
D’Anna Fortunato (mezzo)a; Larry Bell (piano)a; New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and Children’s Chorusb/Benjamin Zanderb
rec. NEC’s Jordan Hall, Boston, July 2004 (Songs) and November 2002 (Songs of Innocence and Experience)
ALBANY TROY 741 [65:02]

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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.

The Immortal 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.

Hubert Culot


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