Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)
Vita brevis (2009)1 [14:52]
Characteristics (1996) 2 [22:35]
Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy3 (2006) [18:51]
Amy Burton (soprano)1; Trio Solisti1; Simon Mulligan (piano)2: Randall Scarlata (baritone)3: La Fenice3: Cecilia Brauer (glass harmonica)3
rec. Performing Arts Centre, Purchase, New York, 23 November 20091, 22 October 20072 and 23 May 20083

Those who enjoyed Naxos’s previous issues of music by Moravec including his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy will need no recommendation to investigate this disc compiling three different pieces scored for different forces. They will not even mind the inconvenience of having to visit the Naxos website to download the essential texts which fit easily onto two pages and could without difficulty have been printed in the booklet. Otherwise this issue can be greeted with only modified rapture.
The opening of Vita brevis arouses high and delectable expectations; the music is lucid, and the re-scoring by the composer for piano trio works well. As soon as the voice enters pleasure becomes distinctly diluted. Amy Burton sounds at first like a slightly tremulous child, and one initially thinks this may be characterisation of James Agee’s poem A lullaby - which is not available on the downloaded texts; but as soon as the voice comes under pressure either of volume or pitch it develops a more adult vibrato, and at the end of the third song Mezzo Cammin is decidedly below the correct pitch. One should be grateful, one supposes, in modern music when the listener can identify when the voice is out of tune; but it does not help to ameliorate one’s distress at the discovery. The booklet note tells us that the singer is “renowned for her performances” and investigation of her website would seem to indicate that her stage presence in such roles as the Governess in Britten’s The turn of the screw and the abandoned woman in Poulenc’s Voix humaine have been critically admired. Either she was having a bad off-day at the time of this recording or her dramatic voice is simply not suited to this music. There is an alternative reading available as part of a recital of New American Song Cycles by Paul Sperry on the Albany label but this uses the original (and less effective) accompaniment for piano only. The high tessitura puts a degree of strain on the male voice which brings in its turn a slightly uncomfortable air of Peter Pears at his least ingratiating.
After this Simon Mulligan’s performance of Characteristics is refreshingly direct and superbly virtuosic. This is a set of ‘enigma’-type variations for piano solo, giving us a series of portraits of various of the composer’s friends in various styles. The ‘serene’ portrait of counter-tenor Russell Oberlin and the ‘humorous’ one of Sara Davis Buechner (the descriptive adjectives are the composer’s own) are both delightfully expressive. Mulligan gave the world première of these pieces in New York in 2004 – eight years after they were written. He clearly enjoys himself in the stunningly ‘vivacious’ portrait of Maria Bachmann.
The final work here is the ‘Franklin fantasy’ Useful Knowledge, a setting of bewilderingly varied texts by the eighteenth century American polymath ranging from ecstatic religious expostulations to practical instructions for the creation of a lightning rod. Although the text from the internet implies that there are seven separate movements, the music is in fact continuous and moves almost instantaneously from one section to another. The music is sublime when required, and even manages to make something out of lines like “fasten about a foot of brass wire the size of a common knitting needle, sharpened to a fine point; the rod may be secured to the house by a few small staples” which must be counted among the least inspirational words that any composer has ever tried to set to music. And Scarlata is a fine singer even if his diction sometimes makes it unclear what he is singing - even with the aid of the downloaded texts. But, but … the recording is disastrously close, with both the singer and the five players of La Fenice all jostling together in the foreground. The result obscures the singer’s words further, and deprives the music of all sense of enchantment. You may manage to add some resonance and echo through the use of a graphic equaliser.
In his booklet note the composer draws attention to his use of a glass harmonica in this piece, and the player is given solo credit both in the booklet and on the CD cover. Moravec states that the instrument was the “favourite invention” of Franklin, and that it “attracted the interest of several prominent musicians of the time, including Mozart, who composed for the instrument.” One must take issue with this assertion. According to Norman del Mar’s Anatomy of the Orchestra the ‘instrument’ Mozart wrote for as ‘Harmonika’ in his Adagio and Adagio and Rondo was the well-established Musical Glasses, “quite simply a row of glasses variably filled with … water and rubbed with the moistened fingers.” What Franklin appears to have invented was something quite different, a keyed instrument which did find some favour with later composers such as Donizetti (who appears to have envisioned it originally for what later become the flute solo in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor) and Glinka (who used it in an elaborate part in Ruslan and Ludmila nowadays played on glockenspiel or celesta). In any event the use of this instrument and Cecilia Bauer’s star billing goes for nothing here, since in the closeness of the recorded focus accorded to all the other instruments her contribution is all but inaudible.
Those who enjoy the music of Moravec – and I am one – will welcome the chance to make acquaintance with more of his music. Those who are coming to this composer for the first time should proceed with a degree of caution, not because of the music itself but because of the unsatisfactory quality of some of the performances and recordings here.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Those who enjoy the music of Moravec will welcome the chance to make acquaintance with more of his music but proceed with a degree of caution.