Songs and Cycles
Emma Lou DIEMER (b.1927)
Strings in the Earth and Air [1:16]
The Caller [1:51]
One Perfect Rose [2:30]
Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day? [2:15]
Flicka RAHN (b.1944)
Shore Grass [2:02]
Katherine FREIBERGER (b.1927)
The Coffee-Pot Songs [7:31]
*Winter Apples [6:57]
Libby LARSEN (b.1950)
Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to her Daughter Janey [13:34]
Elizabeth R. AUSTIN (b.1938)
5 Sonnets from the Portuguese [11:23]
Linda McNeil (soprano)
Carolyn True (piano)
*Kathy McNeil (soprano II)
*Stephanie Shapiro (oboe)
rec. Musical Arts Center of San Antonio, Texas, January 2008. DDD
LEONARDA LE357 [51:20]
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 button.
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
Not a bad CD: The poetry is generally of good quality and imaginatively set, and there is plenty of variety.