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Shakespeare’s Memory - The Shakespeare Concerts Series 1
With Mirth in Funeral
On the Death of a Fair Infant [2.41]
Leda and the Swan [3.56]
Full Fathom Five [8.50]
Sonnet 3 [3.46]
Sonnet 135 [1.23]
Sonnet 116 [3.16]
Sonnets 97 & 98 [8.09]
He Shall with Speed to England [3.15]
Shakespeare’s Memory [8.35]
If by My Art [7.10]
William BYRD (1543-1623)
The Earle of Oxford’s Marche
Kalmia String Quartet; Miroslav Sekera (piano); Andrea Chenoweth (soprano); Kellie Van Horn (mezzo); Justin Vickers (tenor); Chad Sloan (baritone); Maria Ferrante (soprano); Lydie Martelove (harp)
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester MA, April-May, September 2011; Martinick Studio, Prague, 2002 (Byrd)
NAVONA NV5899 [61.32]

“Now all you have to do, uncle, is to put this CD into the computer, here.” Thus my six year old great-nephew. I knew what to do but it was pleasing that he wanted to show me. “And then you click on these things”: ‘CD information’, ‘options’. “Yes”, I squeaked, “but nothing happens and it says on the box ‘place this product in your computer to access study scores, extended liner notes and more’. I’ve done this sort of thing before”. My nephew looked nonplussed. Anyway, by saving it onto the desktop we found the data section which included the handwritten scores.
The CD box describes these twelve pieces as a ‘salmagundi’ of selections from Summer’s Oxford Songs,some dating back to 2002 but others from 2011. This is the first of at least two discs released in Navona’s ‘Shakespeare Concerts Series’. You can read all about this as well as about theories as to who wrote Shakespeare in the ‘data’ section. The ‘Oxford’ in the Oxford Songs refers to the Earl who some put forward as the real author. In any event, the idea of the Songs was to mix Shakespearian settings with text and ideas from his contemporaries. That’s what we get on this disc.
An eminent choral conductor and singer recently told me that he avoided rehearsing and performing settings of Shakespeare as he thought the words too difficult for most composers to set. Is there any truth in that? Well, countless composers have attempted it and so many songs and choral items to words by Shakespeare, particularly by English composers, have remained in the repertoire. So what have we here?
In fact there are twelve settings and twelve tracks. Surprisingly track ten is, quite logically, a presentation of a Byrd harpsichord piece, dedicated to the Earl of Oxford. Track 8 includes two sonnet settings combined. This works well as they are both about a lover’s absence. There are three other sonnets. As I know from experience, the sonnets can be a composer’s challenge. Many have avoided them in favour of the strophic songs like Full Fathom Five,set here, from ‘The Tempest’.
The instrumentation varies from track to track. If you listen right through, as I did on the second occasion, then interest in maintained. For example, From Mirth in Funeral is for just baritone with piano - quite an aggressive accompaniment to the voice. The second comes On the Death of a Fair Infant,with a text by John Milton. It’s for soprano and string quartet. Leda and the Swan with a text by Yeats is scored for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. Some texts are divided between two or even three voices. Full Fathom Five has a mezzo and tenor but the later Sonnet 135 is for two female voices with quartet. This works well especially when the sonnet seems to set up a sort of male/female conversation. Magically at the end comes my favourite setting of Shakespeare’s Memory. This is for just quartet and features some lyrically evocative and idiomatic writing which seems to use a few ideas from Elizabethan melodies and earlier songs. The last track, If by your art, that famous speech again from ‘The Tempest’ is for soprano and harp. It is stylistically rather different from the other songs.
The language is difficult to pin-point because it can often be quite eclectic. I suppose it’s post-expressionist and throws up some quite complex harmony and thick textures, which, for me, sometimes lacked appeal. The situation was not helped at times by the heavy vibrato of some of the voices competing with the instrumentation. This can often obscure the texts. Fortunately the words are supplied in a little slip-case booklet and in the data.
This disc embodies an intriguing concept, which might well appeal to you. For myself, I have a few reservations.
Gary Higginson