Scott WHEELER (b.1952)
Serenata (1993) [18:02]
 Sunday Songs (1999) [18:43]
Heaven and Earth (2007) [16:20]
Singing to Sleep (1984) [excerpts] [8:34]
Litany (2006) [5:38]
Wasting the Night (1990) [1:38]
Mozart, 1935 (1997) [1:53]
Turning Back (2007) [14:05]
William Sharp (baritone)
Susanna Phillips (soprano)
Joseph Kaiser (tenor)
Krista River (mezzo-soprano)
Donald Berman (piano)
rec. SUNY, New York, October 2008 (Singing to Sleep, Turning Back); February 2009 (Sunday Songs, Heaven & Earth, Wasting the Night), July 2009 (Serenata, Litany, Mozart). DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559658 [72:07]
According to Scott Wheeler, his song-writing was inspired by Cole Porter and rock and pop music of the 1960s and 1970s - but that should not discourage the inquisitive music fan from considering this CD. Naxos may be stretching meanings a little to release it in their American Classics range, especially given that three of the eight items are less than five years old, but there is much of quality here.
Wheeler was taught song-setting privately by Virgil Thomson, whose method Wheeler describes in the notes as "focusing on vocal range, groupings of syllables, and placement of vowels." The benefits of Thomson's wisdom are highly apparent throughout this disc: apart from Litany, Wheeler's music is imaginative, varied, pungent, lyrical; yet communication remains paramount and as a testimony to the not-always-deserving poetry, every word can be clearly understood.
Clarity is enhanced by two further factors: firstly, the recording is high-quality and well-balanced. Secondly, Donald Berman is the constant pianist. He is immensely experienced in this kind of repertoire, and is undaunted by the difficulty of much of the music.
Soprano Susanna Phillips has a clear, attractive voice and great interpretive ability. She is outstanding in both sets she performs. The first of these are the two Sunday Songs, both settings of Emily Dickinson. Phillips also performs Wasting the Night, five poignant poems about love and time by Edna St Vincent Millay. This is some of the best poetry on the disc.
Singing To Sleep is a group of three lullabies, of which only two are included on the CD. These are fine songs, beautifully sung by mezzo Krista River. But why on earth only two? The third song could surely have been squeezed on - if it was particularly lengthy, then it could have taken the place of the aptly-named Litany, which feels quite a lot longer than its three and a half minutes, with its repetitive, uninspiring piano accompaniment to Billy Collins's dire humour, along the lines of Sondheim meets Flanders & Swann, and unendearingly delivered by baritone William Sharp.
Sharp also sings Mozart 1935, Wheeler's setting of a rather arch poem by Wallace Stevens. Sharp is an acquired taste; as technically good as his voice is, whatever he sings he tends to sound like he is performing Sondheim. So it was with Litany, and so it is also with this song, although in his notes Wheeler indicates that he meant to suggest Kurt Weill. It's Hollywood, either way. The largest dose of Sharp comes with Serenata. which opens the disc. This is both longer and a little more interesting than Mozart, certainly as far as the music goes. The poems are by Mark Van Doren, and may be a little too pretentious for many palates.
Joseph Kaiser has a much more expressive voice. He sings Heaven and Earth, a cycle of four settings of William Blake, to great effect. And Wheeler's music captures the strangeness of Blake's ideas.
The CD ends with Turning Back, four poems by Hilda Doolittle. Wheeler dedicated these to Krista River, who premièred them and performs them here. Her voice is quite similar to Susanna Phillips's, which is a compliment. Musically, this cycle is another highlight of the disc, and it is a pity that the texts are "not available" for these particular songs - presumably for copyright reasons.
Much of quality here.