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Robert ZUIDAM (b. 1964)
McGonagall-Lieder (1997-2001)
Katrien Barts (soprano), Post&Mulder (piano duet), Asko|Schönberg/Oliver Knussen
rec. Musiekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Amsterdam, 10-12 May 2012

The reputation of William McGonagall (1825-1902) as the worst poet in the English language has hardly encouraged composers to embark on settings of his “poetic gems”, as he termed them. Indeed, the only setting that I can recall, that by Matyas Seiber of The famous Tay whale, was written as a deliberately comic number - complete with Wagnerian quotations and plentiful use of the Volga Boat Song - for the Hoffnung concerts. There it was given gloriously full measure in a recitation by Dame Edith Evans in her best Lady Bracknell style. Actually Robert Zuidam only sets two of McGonagall’s poems in this cycle of “Lieder” - his Address to the New Tay Bridge and The Tay Bridge Disaster. The two poems are linked, the first commemorating the opening of the “strong and securely built” bridge in 1875, and the second lamenting its collapse during a thunderstorm in 1879. McGonagall himself seems to have been blissfully unaware of the irony.
In his substantial booklet note the composer claims that “bad poetry can be an excellent source of inspiration for a composer.” I was sceptical about this claim, but Zuidam makes an arguable case for treating McGonagall as seriously as McGonagall took himself. The ‘cycle’ opens with an extended prelude for piano duet, played with proper solemnity by Pauline Post and Nora Mulder. The music sounds in places like Messiaen at his most splashily ecstatic, but its connection to McGonagall seems tangential at best, almost as if a completely different work has been spliced on to the beginning. When after ten minutes or so the voice finally enters, it is startling to hear McGonagall’s text declaimed by a coloratura soprano employing all the devices of the modern avant garde, with wide-ranging leaps, screams, glissandi and other effects. Were it not for the fact that the text of the poems were supplied in the booklet, it would be almost impossible to decipher a word that the resourceful Katrien Barts sings. She is amazing in the way she manages to encompass the extremely high range which she is given to negotiate, so perhaps it would be churlish to complain. It does make one wonder why composers feel the need to use existing poetic texts at all. Gerard McBurney, reviewing Thomas Ades’s Powder her face for the sadly defunct International Opera Collector many years ago, made the same point eloquently: “It’s not just that those pseudo-Bergian sevenths and ninths sound strained even in the mouth of someone who sings like a xylophone; it is that they inevitably mangle the vowels so that the sense of line keeps disappearing.” Those words are just as true today as they were when they were written in 1998. The accompaniment, scored for low strings and piano duet, adds nothing to the meaning of the incomprehensible delivery of the doggerel verses.
To do him justice, the composer does address these concerns in his booklet notes. “Woolly, ritualistic formulations, followed by vigorous, unexpected outbursts. Minute observations and dazzling bombastic virtuosity, resulting in a hypnotizing anti-lyricism; a limp sense of meter wanders, seemingly clueless, through an unhinged linguistic landscape.” He is describing the poetry of McGonagall, but the same words could also be used to describe the way in which Zuidam’s music reflects those ideas. After the end of the first poem we are given over quarter of an hour of purely instrumental music, at first scored for two pianos and strings and then for two pianos alone. Again the resources of the avant garde are much in evidence; string glissandi swoop and swirl about in a disjointed fashion.
When the voice finally re-enters, we are given a sort of stuttering Gaelic keen which is the score’s sole acknowledgement of the Scottish milieu of the poems. The fall of the passengers into the “silvery Tay” is portrayed by the dropping of what the booklet informs us is “ninety pingpongballs” (who was counting?), an idea which derives I suppose from Stravinsky’s Petruchka where the composer asked for a tambourine to be similarly dropped to depict the breaking of the puppet’s neck; but the subsequent outraged screams from the singer indicate that we are supposed to take this very seriously indeed. Quite suddenly we get a chorale melody to the words “On the last Sabbath day of 1879, which will be remembered for a very long time” - and we find ourselves in the same world of parody as Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight songs for a mad king, although the word-setting lacks the maniacal theatricality of that masterpiece. Actually one might conceive that Maxwell Davies could set McGonagall to good effect - how about it?
Apart from the sheer incomprehensibility of the diction - hardly the fault of the singer - the performers throw themselves into the music with wholehearted dedication and commitment, making the best possible case for the score. The recording is excellently clear; you can hear everything. The disc itself is handsomely packaged, with the normal booklet and jewel box contained in two outer sleeves. As for the music itself, it is not unapproachable or unenjoyable, but it is all terribly serious; the spirit of McGonagall has gone missing somewhere.
Paul Corfield Godfrey