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CD: Crotchet

David GARNER (b.1954)
Spoon River Songs for mezzo and piano (1987-2004) [16:30]
Viñetas Flamencas (Flamenco Vignettes) for tenor, wind quintet and piano (2000) [27:26]
Fireflies and Willows, Three songs on poems by Japanese masters for soprano, baritone and piano [20:21]
Phenomenal Woman for soprano and piano (2004) [15:44]
Susanne Mentzer (mezzo), Francisco Araiza (tenor); William Stone (baritone), Stephanie Friede (soprano Fireflies and Willows); Lisa Delan (soprano Phenomenal Woman)
Kristin Pankonin (piano), Linda Lukas (flute), Jonathan Fisher (oboe), Ben Freimuth (clarinet), Steve Paulson (bassoon), Robert Ward (horn Viñetas Flamencas).
rec. Skywalker Sound, Skywalker Ranch, California, November 2006
Experience Classicsonline

Another new name to add to my growing list of recent discoveries, David Garner has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music since 1979. Working in a tonal idiom, his music exists well outside any of the ‘avant-garde’ styles which might have brought him to our attention sooner than now via the more usual contemporary music circuits, but his beautifully crafted pieces certainly deserve attention, and will hopefully receive such as a result of this Pentatone release.

The Spoon River Songs plunge us straight into the comforting heartlands of Copland and early Americana, the poems of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology leading Garner to create character pieces which fit snugly into Midwest landscapes both social and topographical. The range of emotions in the texts are reflected admirably in the music, from the flighty Lucinda Matlock to the poignant Charles Webster. My only doubts are in the use of a mezzo-soprano for pieces of this kind. Susanne Mentzer has a wonderful voice, but fills straightforward notes and messages of directness and clarity with an all-pervasive operatic vibrato which quickly becomes irksome. Perhaps the voices of each character would be better served by different singers, or at least, one which can give the impression of some kind of contrast between each.

The Viñetas Flamencas are six poems by Federico Garcia Lorca which represent aspects of the flamenco - that colourfully artistic music, song and dance from the southern provinces of Spain. Impeccably played by a wind quintet of members of the San Francisco Symphony, and with the piano also functioning on occasion as a flamenco guitar, Garner has created some delicious music in these songs. Some of the vocal gestures are a bit hammy, and in general the mixture of ‘modern’ classical and traditional Spanish result in something a bit too heavy to really “transport the listener back to those turn-of-the-century days in Spain, with the smoke-filled taverns, the swaying skirts of the dancers…” The little episodes of clapping in Café Cantate show how difficult it is to get that kind of thing just right - even the slightest unevenness giving the lie to listeners used to the real thing. This however takes little away from the fact that these are highly enjoyable pieces on their own terms. The central Lamentacion de la Muerta for instance is a moving chorale which shifts the mood very effectively, and the dramatic final Conjuro undulates and unfolds with a driving power which is quite compelling.

Fireflies and Willows is a set of three songs by Japanese poets. Garner describes how he “developed a musical language of bird songs, water, wind, and other elements of nature, intertwined with the Japanese classical scales… and other pentatonic harmonies.” Some of these elements work well enough, but my comfort zone is tested when “there is some ‘impressionistic’ text painting… ‘expressionism’…” The music fits best with the words when the textures are all too briefly sparing and simple, but to my mind become claggy and at odds with the poetry where the impressionistic and expressionistic elements are allowed to take hold. I had no expectations when listening to these songs, and was certainly not expecting any attempts at traditional Japanese musical style. If this cycle was a plate of food however, I could imagine Michel Roux jr. saying ‘it’s not right’. I am the first to give room for anyone to set texts any way they see fit, but do feel strongly that the meeting of enigmatic Japanese writing with all its symbolism and other-worldly philosophical content and Garner’s treacle-thick romanticism jars horribly. The Haiku for instance, are spun out by the repetition of words in a late romantic operatic manner, removing all semblance of the original rhythm and character of the texts. This is a personal response and many may not agree, but this juxtaposition made me feel a little ill, like sushi and cream: ‘not right, not right at all…’

With Phenomenal Woman we are on safer ground. These are seven songs on poems by Maya Angelou, taking the form of cabaret songs, and exploring jazzy idioms, blues and rock and roll. This is the kind of thing American composers frequently do very well indeed, and Garner is no exception, though the range seems to stay on the high side a bit too much too long for Lisa Delan’s voice sometimes. She gives some fine faux-naivety to the hymn voice in Lord, in my Heart and manages or is given more space to develop character than any of the other singers. Both texts and music are a somewhat coy and sanitised view on life and language - “lowdown mother user” come on - but make for an entertaining listen nonetheless.

This is a fine release, well performed and beautifully recorded in stylishly subtle SACD surround sound. David Garner’s melodic music is very much on the human scale, and provides relief from those fed up with ernstige angst-strewn atonal modern music. Not everything was to my taste on this album, but beauty is in the ear of the beholder, and I don’t want my words or the rather easily lampooned cover picture to put anyone off trying this disc. If you enjoyed And if the Song be Worth a Smile then this will go very well next to it on your shelf.

Dominy Clements  



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