This disc was originally released in June 2009. It bears the
subtitle 'Contemporary American Women Composers', and features
songs - sometimes short cycles - by five of varying prominence
in the more 'veteran' stages of their careers.
However, much of the success or otherwise of this CD hangs on
American soprano Linda McNeil's voice, which is heard almost
non-stop for 51 minutes. McNeil teaches musical theatre, among
other disciplines, at Trinity University, San Antonio, and,
according to her biography, she has performed in more than thirty
professional productions of musicals, including Oklahoma
and Guys and Dolls. Her aptitude for that style of singing
is evident in this recital - she seems most at home performing
'numbers' like Katherine Freiberger's Coffee-Pot Songs,
where there is more emphasis on quirkiness, acting, humour -
the final item, 'Rainy Day', is straight out of Off-Broadway.
Those that enjoy a mature, heavyish, almost operatic sound with
lashings of wide and sometimes slow vibrato will have nothing
to worry about. Although when Kathy McNeil's very similar voice
and technique practically double the effect in Katherine Freiberger's
overlong-anyway Winter Apples, even the more easy-going
of music lovers may be tempted to reach for the fast forward
Emma Lou Diemer and particularly Flicka Rahn get less than their
fair share of McNeil's chosen programme. Rahn's two thoughtful
settings of Amy Lowell are over in four minuscule minutes. The
unhappily short playing time of this disc cries out for more
contributions from either or both of them. In Diemer's The
Caller, McNeil's rural American accent is unconvincing,
more of a middle class impersonation of a working class voice.
Though not without interest, Katherine Freiberger's songs are
altogether less persuasive. Aside from being too lengthy, her
Winter Apples is puzzlingly scored for a second soprano
who all but doubles the first, and for a lacklustre oboe that
adds little to the effect, and indeed comes across as a bit
of a clichéd afterthought.
The two most substantial, musically interesting and significant
works on the disc are saved till last: Libby Larsen's poignant
Songs from Letters - based on letters written by the
real-life 'Calamity' Jane to her daughter - and Elizabeth Austin's
settings of five of Elizabeth Browning's lovely Sonnets from
the Portuguese (not 'Songs', as stated in the booklet).
Both McNeil and True cope well with their often virtuosic parts
in these two works, although McNeil tends at times towards shrillness
and the recording process has caused some distortion - almost
an echo - in the highest notes.
The piano accompaniment is also generally problematic throughout
the recital. There is nothing wrong with Carolyn True's abilities,
but the instrument itself is muffled and flattish, and generally
doing a good impression of an upright, and a well-pounded one
at that. Stephanie Shapiro's oboe, which makes a sudden and
fairly unnecessary appearance in Winter Apples, is better,
but the evidence remains firmly against a high quality recording.
In the final reckoning, this is not a bad CD, at least in certain
respects - the poetry is generally of good quality and imaginatively
set, and there is plenty of variety in the programme. The booklet
too is informative - even if no dates are given for any of the
works - and the full song texts are included.
The less pleasing aspects of this production do devalue it somewhat,
but ultimately the decision to buy or not to buy is most likely
to come down to individual reactions to Linda McNeil's voice
- samples can be heard at the Leonarda website here.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk