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Jake HEGGIE (b. 1961)
For a Look or a Touch (2007) [33.47]
Morgan Smith (baritone) Julian Patrick (actor) Zart Domburian-Eby (flute) Kara DeLuca (clarinet) Mikhail Shmidt (violin) Amos Yang (cello) Craig Sheppard (piano)
Gerard SCHWARZ (b. 1945)
In Memoriam (2005) [9.06]
Julian Schwarz (cello) Jeannie Wells Yablonsky (violin) Leonid Keylin (violin) Susan Gulkis Assadi (viola) Mara Finkelstein (cello) (2)
Lori LAITMAN (b. 1955)
The Seed of Dream (2004) [17.57]
Amos Yang (cello); Erich Parce (baritone) Mina Miller (piano)
rec. Illsely Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 12 May 2007 (Heggie), 11 May 2006 (Schwartz), 29 January 2007 (Laitman). DDD
NAXOS 8.559379 [60.50]
Experience Classicsonline

Apart from his opera Dead Man Walking there is not a lot of Jake Heggie in the record catalogue so this new Naxos release which includes his chamber piece For a Look or a Touch is most welcome. The disc is produced under the auspices of Music of Remembrance, a Seattle-based organisation which aims to remember Holocaust musicians and their art. Their programmes include both music by those persecuted by the Nazis and contemporary pieces inspired by Holocaust victims and survivors, plus works reflecting folk and art cultures targeted by the Nazi regime. Heggie’s piece was commissioned by Music of Remembrance because artistic director Mina Miller wanted a piece which reflected the persecution of homosexuals by the Third Reich.
 
Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer used Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary film Paragraph 175 as background for the piece; in the film, surviving homosexuals tell their stories. From this came the story of Manfred Lewin and Gad Beck. Lewin, who did not survive the Holocaust, wrote poetry and a journal for his lover, Beck, who did survive. These literary survivals became the basis for Scheer’s libretto.
 
Heggie and Scheer have written a small-scale theatre-piece in which the elderly Gad Beck, a spoken role taken by Julian Patrick, is visited by the ghost of his lover Manfred Lewin (baritone, Morgan Smith). The two reminisce and Lewin provides Beck with a degree of closure. Morgan Smith sings a series of songs/arias which are linked with dialogue and spoken solos for Julian Patrick. Strictly speaking the piece mixes song-cycle and melodrama as most of Patrick’s utterances are underscored by the instrumental ensemble. Heggie has written the accompaniment for a small ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano and much of the piece is flexibly, lightly and transparently scored.
 
Heggie writes with what I might call tough lyricism. He mixes styles, bringing in elements of the Jazz Age for the song about the delights of pre-War Berlin - though Heggie’s music evokes New York more than Berlin - and is not afraid of violence. But for much of the time he seems to be aiming for a moving lyricism, a tenderness which evokes a response to the subject matter without actually describing it. There are no big tunes, as such, but the music is constantly melodic, often lyrical and tonal, but never easy.
 
I wanted to like the piece and appreciate Heggie’s and Scheer’s sincerity. The subject obviously means a lot to Heggie; he is quoted on the Music of Remembrance web site – “This project had deep resonance for me as a gay man, somebody who grew up in fear of being mocked, ridiculed and physically harmed because of my sexual orientation,” said Heggie. “The title comes from a line in the documentary Paragraph 175: ‘You could be arrested for a look or a touch.’ Under the Nazis, innuendo was enough to convict a person.”
 
But unfortunately sincerity is not quite enough. Partly my disappointment stems from a dislike of the genre that Heggie and Scheer have chosen - the mixture of song and spoken word seems to sit together uneasily. I longed for Julian Patrick to break into song. It did not help that I found Patrick’s delivery a little too over-boiled and the general tenor of the words seemed to be too transatlantic. Patrick just does not feel or sound like a German. His responses are too American and his relationship with Morgan Smith’s Manfred is a little unconvincing.
 
Smith contributes a finely sung baritone with a nice feel for the music’s line and good diction. I wished that this was a simple song-cycle, as it might have worked better. The instrumentalists led by Craig Sheppard’s piano are admirable in their accompaniment.
 
The other major work on the disc is Lorrie Laitman’s The Seed of Dreams, a song-cycle based on the poetry of  Abraham Sutzkever. Sutzkever was a Jew living in Vilnius, Lithuania who wrote poetry. Amid all the chaos, tragedy and resistance Sutzkever wrote poems of classical metre in perfect rhyme. Laitman has chosen to set the poems in translations by C.K. Williams and Leonard Wolf.
 
I’m afraid that this is, for me, where the problems start. I find the poems that Laitman actually sets too wordy, the poetry does not sit well on my ear and the English versions are neither in classical metre nor do they rhyme. Laitman clothes these words in powerful lyric lines, often bravely leaving the voice relatively unaccompanied. Erich Parce gives a powerful performance which is brave enough to almost make us believe the work succeeds in its aims of being tender, noble and moving. Ultimately I found the language of the poetry got in the way and wished that Laitman had chosen to set Sutzkever’s original, which I presume to have been Yiddish. You can find samples of Sutzkever’s Yiddish poetry here.
 
Between these two works there is a short piece, In Memoriam,  for solo cello and string ensemble written by the conductor Gerald Schwarz for his son Julian, in memory of the musician David Tonkonogui (1958-2003). This evokes distant memories of Strauss in Metamorphosen mood and is perhaps the most successful piece on the disc partly because it aims lower and is content to evoke memories of other pieces. Julian Schwarz’s solo playing is excellent and I hope that we hear more of him.
 
Like some titles from the Naxos Milken Archive series, I felt that this disc presented the pieces which fitted best the theme of the series rather than choosing the composers’ best works. That said, there is much of interest here and some fine performances; I just don’t feel that I will be listening to the disc very often.
 
Robert Hugill
 

 


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