Five Songs for Children (1962/1999) [7.16] (1,7)
Sneezles (1972) [3.21] (1,8, 9, 10)
Five Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1955) [6.59] (6, 8)
Two Songs from Emily Dickinson (1961) [6.26] (1, 7)
Songs from Spoon River (2004 - 2008) [30.38] (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8)
Reflections of a Peacemaker (2007) [12.31] (11, 12)
Michelle Areyzaga (soprano) (1); Elizabeth Norman (soprano) (2); Scott Ramsay (tenor) (3); Alexander Tall (baritone) (4); Levi Hernandez (baritone) (5); Robert Sims (baritone) (6); Welz Kauffman (piano) (7); William Billingham (piano) (8); Anne Bach (oboe) (9); Tina Laughlin (percussion) (10); Chicago Childrens Choir/Josephine Lee (11); John Goodwin (piano) (12)
rec. 8-9 September, 13 October 2008, 8 April 2009, Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia, Highland Park, Illinois. USA
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 112 [67.45]
Quite what the name Spoon River means to you probably depends on your cultural background. For me it will forever be associated with a piece by Percy Grainger. But for many people Spoon River will mean Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, a collection of free-form poems which describe the life of a fictional small town named for the real Spoon River which ran near to Masters' home. Each poem is an Epitaph, delivered by the dead person to which it refers. Masters' depictions of small town life are masterly and mix the everyday with the rather shocking goings-on which happen in the background.
In 2004 American composer Lita Grier set five songs. These were followed by further settings so that the complete cycle now runs to ten songs, each one setting one of Masters' poems. Grier sets the songs for high soprano, second soprano, tenor and baritone, accompanied by piano. Running to some thirty minutes in length it is Grier's longest work to date.
Grier's career as a composer is somewhat interesting. This disc contains songs written by her from 1955 to 2009 but this time period is deceptive as she was silent for a long time. Grier studied at UCLA under Roy Harris and Lukas Foss. Her early songs and chamber music were highly praised, but she stopped composing as she found herself out of sympathy with the prevailing serialism of the 1960s. Perhaps also an element of prejudice against female composers might have been present as well. But her existing songs and chamber music had something of a life of their own and in the mid-1990s Grier took up composing again.
The song-cycle which opens this disc, Songs for Children, spans this period as Grier started it in 1962 and finished it in 1999. Her style did not radically change though perhaps she wrote with a greater degree of control, a stronger touch of austerity. The Songs for Children set a variety of poets and the songs certainly do not talk down to the children they are aimed at. On this disc soprano Michelle Areyzaga brings fine diction to the songs, emphasising the importance of the words. Unfortunately Areyzaga's vibrato and rather mature tone seem a trifle unsuitable for the songs and I would have preferred a slimmer, more focused voice. But her performances are convincing and she makes a good advocate.
Areyzaga appears on the next track, a 1972 setting of Sneezles, the poem by A.A. Milne. This song raises some rather interesting points. Grier's style has a rather American feel, think Copland and Barber and though her songs have a degree of metropolitan sophistication, the wide open plains never seem to be too far away. So her settings of classic English texts have a rather entrancing mix of Old World and New World.
Not everyone will like this and in the Five Songs from A Shropshire Lad, which date from 1955, I found that the settings of the better known poems could not drown out the more familiar versions. There are a number of other influences here, including a hint of American popular song! The baritone, Robert Sims, gives the songs good commitment and a decent sense of line. In a couple of the songs I felt that the part lay a little too low for him.
Songs from Spoon River are impressively sung by Elizabeth Norman, Michelle Areyzaga, Scott Ramsay, Alexander Tall and Levi Hernandez. They create a good narrative feel and bring out the words so that we get a real sense of the characters addressing us. Elizabeth Norman, unfortunately seems to have some trouble with the high tessitura of her songs and does not always sound comfortable. Grier takes the poems at face value and sets them seriously straight. I felt that there was sometimes a sly, satiric undercurrent in the poems (and in Masters' depiction of small town life) that Grier misses.
The final item on the disc is a set of choral pieces sung by the Chicago Children's Choir. Here Grier sets poetry by Mattie J.T. Stepanek, a young man who died in 2004 at the age of 14. The poems are quite sophisticated and Grier's settings again do not talk down. In fact the choir makes a surprisingly mature sound and it was only after my first listen that I realised that they were a children's choir.
This is an interesting disc of one of the forgotten voices of American 20th century music. Whilst these performances are not perfect, Grier has found a group of fine advocates and all of the pieces receive strong, direct performances. If the alternative, tonal pathways of late 20th century music interest you then do try this disc.