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Surprise - Measha Brueggergosman
William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Cabaret Songs (orch. William Bolcom)
Surprise! [0:42] The Actor [1:31] Song of Black Max [3:20] Amor [3:08] Toothbrush Time [3:19] The Total Stranger in the Garden [1:54] George [3:31]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874–1951)
Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs)
Gigerlette [1:48] Jedem das Seine [4:39] Mahnung [4:37] Galathea [3:09] Der Nachtwandler* [3:34] Einfältiges Lied [2:16] Der genügsame Liebhaber [2:19] Arie aus dem Spiegel von Arkadien [3:10]
Orchestration: Patrick Davin, Arnold Schönberg*
Erik SATIE (1866–1925)
La Diva de l’Empire [2:40]
Tendrement [4:13]
L’Omnibus automobile [2:52]
Daphénéo (orch.Robert Caby) [1:27]
Je te veux (orch. William Bolcom) [6:14]
Measha Brueggergosman (soprano)
William Bolcom (piano: Satie 1-3)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson
rec. May 2007, Maida Vale Studio, Delaware Road, London
Experience Classicsonline

I’d better begin by confessing that this was sent to me about three months ago as a “Press Kit”. This contained the CD itself, a promotional DVD with bits of the sessions, interviews with Brueggergosman, Bolcom and Robertson, plus a booklet with a presentation by Edward Seckerson and a resumé of the soprano’s career thus far. The idea of the “Press Kit” being that, when the critic gets the record itself, he’s ready to move fast. So, having duly listened, I held my fire and awaited the post … Well, the real record still hasn’t reached me, but as it’s now in the shops and has been reviewed in several places, it doesn’t look as if it’s going to. So I’ll get on and review it on the basis of what I have here. What the purchaser actually gets in the way of a booklet, and whether it has words or translations, I obviously have no idea (They are included in the release CD - Ed.).
Another point about the “Press Kit”, I suppose, is that the critic who can’t work out whether a new singer is good or bad by just listening, gets full priming by the composer of the main offering, the conductor of it all and a friendly, smiling interview with the lady herself, not to speak of Edward Seckerson on hand to tell us that “nobody sleeps while Measha Brueggergosman’s on”. More than a “Press Kit”, it seems intended as a surreptitious “Review Kit”.
Well, not mine, though I hasten to say this is not a prelude to slating a very gifted young lady. She has a rich, vibrant voice with an almost contralto-like timbre, but carried up effortlessly to the soprano range. By her own account, hers is a word-oriented approach to the song repertoire. Her words are certainly clear, but this is where I begin to wonder if the “Review Kit” isn’t trying to make us hear more than is really there. Or whether she is not yet quite able to put over all she intends.
Some time ago I waxed lyrical about Malena Ernman’s disc of cabaret songs (see review). Her selection of 12 Bolcom songs has 6 in common with the 7 chosen here. Well, surely Brueggergosman’s got to be the real thing. A young Canadian soprano whose artistry has inspired Bolcom himself to make an orchestral cycle out of songs he originally wrote to be sung by his wife to his own piano accompaniment. Not so fast! The young Canadian soprano is very, very good, there’s no doubt about it, and the orchestral garb will take these songs to places where they otherwise wouldn’t be heard. But does the bigger accompaniment, with its sometimes onomatopoeic illustrations of points the piano leaves to our imagination, like the harmonica in “Black Max”, do more than underline the obvious? Does it not rob these miniatures of their small-scale intimacy?
Turn now to the singing. Take the various cries of “Amor” in the song of that name. Ernman finds a different tone, a different timbre for each one; with Brueggergosman they come out about the same each time. Or the verse in “Black Max” beginning “There was knitting-needle music…”. I defy anyone to listen to the two and not recognize the difference between Ernman’s inspired artistry and someone doing a good job. Ernman seduces the ear with a continually changing palette of chest-tones, dulcet little-girl tones and speech rhythms. Just hear how she rasps off “though he walked like a woman”, then the whispered “He must be still alive”, and the long pause she makes before “Ah poor Marco had the syph”. It’s interesting that even in spoken insertions, such as the telephone call in “Toothbrush Time”, it’s Ernman who gives that little bit more. 
But, you may say, Ernman’s is an intimate, even microphone-oriented approach. With an orchestral accompaniment, it’s necessary to sing out more. This is arguable. For me, it’s an argument for keeping the songs to the environment and accompaniment originally intended.
Or else, you may say, is Ernman going over the top? After all, Bolcom himself seems thrilled with Brueggergosman. This may be. Bolcom himself joins her at the piano for a couple of Satie songs. I’ve heard various interpretations of “La Diva de l’Empire” but never, I think, one which aimed at Mendelssohnian understatement. So perhaps he really does prefer a straightforward interpretation, leaving the music to speak for itself. The trouble is, the composer himself may not be the best person to realize that, while some of these songs might go down as 20th century classics – “Black Max”, “Amor” – others, including the title song of this disc, “Surprise”, are really just empty vessels, worth no more than the singer can put into them? It thereby follows that they’re worth more when Ernman sings them.
Much the same may be said of the Schoenberg group. Schoenberg’s own bizarre arrangement for a small ensemble of “Der Nachtwandler” might have been a useful model, but Patrick Davin opts for a more generalized lushness. Again, fine singing, but Brueggergosman hardly drips sensuality mingled with irony in, for example, the pathetic “Der genügsame Liebhaber”, where the unfortunate young man gets a sexual kick out of stroking the cat his adored one holds in her lap.
All this must sound terribly picky. This is a gifted singer with a remarkable timbre, but it won’t help her or anyone else to pretend she is not at the beginning rather than the apex of her achievement. Since I’ve also seen snippets of her on DVD I’ll add that she comes across in the interview as a charming personality, not at all the haughty prima donna. At the sessions themselves, she has a way of throwing her head up enthusiastically as she starts each new phrase which can be quite infectious at first. Except that the gesture is identical each time, so even the body language is limited as yet. 
Christopher Howell

see also review by Göran Forsling



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