Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) [30:29]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Vers la flamme, Op. 72 (1914) [6 :26]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Sieben frühe Lieder (1905-8) [14:47]
Pawel SZYMANSKI (b. 1954)
Drei Lieder nach Trakl (2002) [12:10]
Agata Zubel (soprano); Marcin Grabosz (piano)
rec. Witold Lutoslawski Concert Hall, Polish Radio, Warsaw, December 2007–March 2008
CDACCORD ACD149-2 [63:59]
A word, first of all, about the presentation of this superb disc. The recording appears on the Accord label, but this seems to be a fine Polish recording company, not the illustrious French house. The recording is magnificently rich and detailed, though I occasionally wish the singer had been brought just a step forward. I suspect the engineers of exercising their right to fade-out from time to time, notably at the very end of the recital. The booklet is glued to the cardboard casing of the disc, making it unwieldy and subject to damage with frequent use. It contains a number of essays on the music, in Polish and in English, which will be informative to many but which others may find border on the pretentious. Neither the translation nor the proofreading is infallible. Emily Dickinson’s poems are printed in English and in Polish, and the words of the German songs are given in the three languages, but not always side by side. This makes a lot of page-turning necessary in order to follow them. There is also biographical information about the performers.
Agata Zubel’s was a new name to me, as was that of the pianist, Marcin Grabosz. From the opening notes we are aware that we are in the presence of a player of the very first rank. He is scrupulously attentive both to the detail of the score and to the span of each individual song. He possesses a strong musical personality, yet his playing never overshadows the singer. Miss Zubel is a composer as well as a performer, so we shouldn’t be surprised that her repertoire features a fair amount of contemporary music. Hers is a strikingly beautiful voice, with impeccable tuning and just a little of the Slav character that makes so many Polish sopranos compelling as a listening experience.
Aaron Copland composed his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson between March 1949 and March 1950. In a short introduction to the score he writes that although the poems “centre about no single theme … they treat of subject matter particularly close to Miss Dickinson: nature, death, life, eternity.” When she died in 1886 at the age of fifty-six, Emily Dickinson had led a solitary life for many years, not leaving her home, receiving few visitors and shunning all contact with people she didn’t know. Very little of her work was published in her lifetime, and indeed much of her mature work was discovered in her desk after her death. To Copland’s list of themes, then, we might add the essential loneliness of the creative artist, combined with the enclosed, almost claustrophobic atmosphere of the way of life she adopted.
Though the poems employ essentially simple language and imagery they are nonetheless often elusive and, one would have thought, not particularly suitable for musical setting. Other composers have followed in Copland’s footsteps, but none with the same success, as he almost miraculously found exactly the right tone for these most intimate works. In fact, he went further, adding to some of the poems expressive layers which do not exist without the music. The fifth poem, for example, which begins “Heart, we will forget him”, is a beautiful but essentially simple lyric about lost love. Copland’s music raises it well above this level, adding human warmth, dignity and poise to the mix. The two together, words and music, become a masterpiece in miniature.
Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson is one of the finest vocal works of the twentieth century, and in all respects but one, which I will come to later, this is one of the finest performances of it I have ever heard. Agata Zubel really acts out these songs, inhabiting the text and seeking out individual words and phrases for special treatment: these are not neutral performances. The text assumes its importance in the overall scheme. She sometimes breathes in surprising places, and I feel obliged to point out – lest some reader accuses me of not listening properly – that she sings a C sharp instead of a natural in the next to last phrase of the ninth song. But the performance overall is an immensely moving one, and it reminded me of my favourite performance up to now, that by Robert Tear and Philip Ledger, originally recorded on the Argo label, and last seen on Belart 461 6102. Like her, he is not afraid to employ a wide variety of tone colour in order to inject meaning into particular phrases. Also like her, he never oversteps the mark, retaining all the inwardness and essential solitariness of the text, so brilliantly reflected in the music. If it seems perverse to prefer a Polish soprano or a British tenor to an American duo – Barbara Bonney with André Previn on Decca, for example – then so be it. Yet there is a problem with this performance, and one that I have deliberately left until last, and that is the singer’s English pronunciation. Vowels, in particular, are subjected to some mangling, and just occasionally – the words “go” and “world” at the end of the second song, for example – this forces the singer into making a rare ugly sound. I will willingly live with this, however, in the face of such long-breathed control of slow tempi, daringly slow in the case of some of the earlier songs, or the way she responds to Copland’s instruction at the beginning of the seventh song, marked “With great calm”.
The recital continues with Scriabin’s piece for piano alone. Beginning quietly and building gradually in intensity, the music leads us magically “towards the flame”. It comes as a bit of a jolt after Copland, but prepares the way very well for the Berg songs that follow. Marcin Grabosz plays the work superbly, taking considerably more time over it than does Roger Woodward in the only other performance I have heard and which I reviewed for MusicWeb International some years ago.
The Berg performances are perhaps the least successful on the disc. Miss Zubel seems deliberately to eschew the admirable vocal purity that she employs for Copland in favour of a fast vibrato. I imagine this is a response to the rather overpowering sweetness of much of the music, but it is a pity all the same: she has huge reserves of power, and one longs for the same easy phrasing she employs in the Copland. I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise this, as the performance is still a fine one, and Grabosz once again proves a superb partner, modifying his tone and rising rapturously with his singer at moments of passion.
The recital ends with a real surprise, and though it may seem absurd to say so, the disc is worth buying for Pawel Szymanski’s songs alone. Each of the three Georg Trakl poems has its gloomy side, but the composer seems to have chosen them as much for the sound of the words as for the sense. The songs create a hugely powerful atmosphere, with much use of silence. They must be very challenging to sing, the second song in particular, where virtually every note, high or low, is sung staccato. Much of the atmosphere of the songs comes from the most inventive piano writing, and this is particular true of the startlingly beautiful final song where the nature of the accompaniment is dictated by the reference to “cloister bells” in the text. The doubling of the vocal line in the piano in this song makes one think of the composer’s compatriot, Górecki, but in fact the musical sound-world is much closer to that of Copland, bringing this deeply satisfying recital full circle.

William Hedley

A magnificently planned recital, superbly sung and played. Unmissable … see Full Review