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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

John MUSTO (b. 1954)
Viva Sweet Love [11 :05]
Quiet Songs [21:26]
Nude at the Piano [2:40]
Résumé [1:04]
Witness [0:39]
Social Note [0:42]
Flamenco [3:45]
Penelope’s Song [3:24]
The Old Gray Couple* [11:35]
Triolet [1:06]
Amy Burton (soprano); Patrick Mason (baritone); John Musto (piano); John Musto and Michael Barrett (piano 4 hands)*
rec. Performing Arts Centre, SUNY, Purchase, NY, August 2007
BRIDGE 9286 [58:29]
Experience Classicsonline

"If there is a finer composer of song with piano alive and working in the world today, I would very much like to know his or her name." This quotation, about American composer John Musto, appears in biographical information published about him at different places on the web, and is attributed to Graham Johnson, no less. Those who acquire this collection of songs, and it comes recommended, will be able to decide for themselves.

The title of the set of five songs which opens the disc, Viva Sweet Love, comes from the closing words of the set, by E. E. Cummings, and Musto is very successful at matching the rather breathless quality of that very particular poet. The first song is to a Cummings poem too, and the other three are by James Laughlin. I may be wrong to have doubts about the punctuation of these Laughlin texts as they appear in the booklet, but doubts I have all the same. In any event, the order of the songs as sung and in the booklet is different. You Came as a Thought reads to me like a short serene love poem, but Musto sets it in lugubrious style, as he does, more understandably, Rome: In the Café. The poem Crystal Palace Market demonstrates significant lightness of touch, and Musto’s jazz-inflected setting matches it very well indeed. The singer doesn’t actually sing much in this song, but croons rather, in a very cool and updated version of sprechgesang. Elsewhere, I wonder how many times I will have to hear these songs before I come away actually singing - or whistling - the vocal line. This ought to be possible, shouldn’t it, in song?

Most of us would find it a bit of a challenge to sing the vocal line of a song by Webern, but songs they most certainly are, and the vocal line most certainly is melody, albeit of the most challenging kind. I don’t find much melody, as such, in Musto’s vocal writing; in its place there is a sort of continuous arioso. The second song in the set of six entitled Quiet Songs is only four lines long and is worth quoting in full:

You are with me
And I am with you
I surely would die
If that were not true.

By Amy Elizabeth Burton, this is hardly great poetry, but it does express an idea succinctly and effectively, and Musto has found just the right music for these words and this idea. It’s almost, but not quite enough. Elsewhere in the cycle the vocal line blossoms into something truly melodic in Palm Sunday: Naples, but this is I think because the composer is creating a kind of Italian pastiche atmosphere, and very successfully too. The insert notes also suggest there might be a quote from Rossini in this song. There is no discernible theme in the poems which make up Quiet Songs, but again the notes tell us that the final song, Lullaby, contains elements of the preceding ones, thus giving musical unity to the cycle. I’ll have to live with these songs a little longer, I think, before I’ll be able to hear this for myself.

Résumé sets Dorothy Parker’s famous lines about suicide - “Gas smells awful;/You might as well live” - and features a rather sombre vocal line over a heavily charged accompaniment, as does Nude at the Piano, which does not celebrate a classical sculpture, but rather a disappointed lover, beer in hand, lamenting the departure of the one for whom he had bought the wretched instrument. The barbed humour of both poems seems to demand a different kind of treatment than this. Social Note, on the other hand, also to words by Dorothy Parker and the first really fast music on the disc, seems just right. There is a fair amount of pastiche in both the vocal line and the accompaniment of Flamenco. Then comes Penelope’s Song. The poem, by Didi Balle, contains the refrain “Don’t hurry home, love. Don’t hurry home.” It is perhaps a hymn to the wonder of love which can, nonetheless, leave little space for other essentials in an already crowded life. This is a modern preoccupation, and Musto has found a musical solution which results in a song which, though challenging, would not be too out of place on Broadway. And it isn’t simply because the vocal line follows a more tonal framework that I find Musto has, at last, found exactly the notes needed to sing these particular words. He almost achieves it in the final song too, Triolet, but before that the two singers join forces for an extended duet, The Old Gray Couple. The opening has the two singers sometimes singing in unison, sometimes not, and sometimes almost. It’s a very striking effect, and the song, which explores love from the standpoint of a couple who have been together for fifty years, is an affecting one.

Having listened to these songs several times now I am left with the feeling that Musto’s piano writing is considerably more individual and memorable than his vocal writing. I don’t think much of the meaning of the words would be communicated by singing the vocal line alone, and I crave for something more substantial to catch on to in the vocal line. The musical language is modern but without extremes, late Copland maybe, not at all John Adams, though curiously it does sound very American. The two singers are absolutely excellent, and each plays a part in convincing the listener to stick with these songs and get to know them better. The composer is the outstandingly successful piano accompanist, so we must suppose that the performances achieve his objectives. The recording is immediate and life-like, and the booklet carries the essay by Roger Evans to which I have referred, and which takes too long to apply itself to the repertoire under consideration. The words of all the songs are printed in full.

William Hedley 



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