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Jake HEGGIE (b. 1961)
Natural Selection (1997) [18.15]
Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999) [12.15]
Eve-Song (1996) [28.06]
Regina Zona (soprano), Kathleen Tagg (piano)
rec. Oktaven Audio LLC, Yonkers, New York, 26 April and 4 June 2013
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559764 [58.49]

Naxos have been doing Jake Heggie proud lately (see reviews). Here we have another disc of his songs which contains the first complete recording of the cycle Eve-Song. All of these pieces have been around for quite some time now, and indeed pre-date Heggie’s successes with his operas Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick, both of which I have reviewed with pleasure during the last couple of years. Naxos commendably have not only supplied booklet notes by the composer and performers, but also include the complete texts of the songs.
 
It has to be observed that they are necessary. Regina Zona has a substantial portfolio of major operatic roles including Tosca and Ariadne to her credit, but clarity of English diction is not her strong point. To cite just one particular example, listen to the bizarrely elided way she pronounces “squirrels” at track 5, 1.05. It is surprising to learn from her biography that she is an “avid recitalist” who “specializes in the performance of American art song”. Here, in order to achieve a proper balance with the pianist, she is clearly having to scale back a naturally large voice. The results sound unfortunately at times rather tremulous and unsupported in tone. This is not helped by a very closely observed recording acoustic. The microphones are clearly very close to both the singer and pianist in a rather airless-sounding studio.
 
As a point of comparison I listened to the earlier recording of the Ophelia pieces by Isabel Bayrakdarian (part of another disc of Heggie song cycles), and her warmer tones and clearer diction made for a much more comfortable listening experience. Which is a shame, because the songs here clearly furnish further proof, if that were necessary, of Heggie’s grateful vocal writing and response to English words. These come from Gini Savage in Natural selection, Philip Littell (born 1950) in Eve-song and Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1940) in the Ophelia items. The last is supplemented by a poem by Heggie himself which matches its context well and displays a talent for versification as well as musical composition.
 
What of the music itself? In Natural selection the words don’t seem immediately to lend themselves to musical setting. At one point the singer has the lines “As Tosca I lost it over Scarpia: not such a bad fella, he had the power and a steady job.” Heggie resolves the difficulties by simply composing an immediately appreciable — and very good — connected melodic line in the accompaniment and superimposing the words. This does not help the listener’s comprehension even were the singer’s diction clearer than it is. The poems describe the growing emotional development of a girl. Despite reservations, throughout one can see Heggie’s knack for effective natural word-setting which would later develop so effectively in his operas. Apart from a briefly fleeting reference to the ‘Scarpia’ motif, he shuns any idea of reflecting the operatic characters mentioned – Oberon, Brünnhilde, Isolde, Bluebeard – through quotation of relevant passages from other composers. The final song, Joy alone (track 5), where the girl finds final contentment alone in nature, is very beautiful indeed.
 
The Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia, with their more naturally poetic texts, allow for a more melodic vocal line – which fortunately is one of Heggie’s real strengths. On the other hand, he does not overlook the need to illustrate the words. An ominous line like “treacherous queens, with death upon the tread” (track 7, 2.43) brings a funereal beat in the accompaniment that is most effective. His setting of a phrase like “beauty is not enough” (track 9, 0.31) has a felicitous feel for the English language which fits the poetry like a glove.
 
The much more modern poetry of Phillip Litell in Eve-Song brings a return to the more declamatory vocal style of Natural Selection, with the singer’s line counterpointed by melodic interest centred in the piano part. This calls for a more strenuous tone in lines such as “God damn it!” (track 10, 2.44) than Zona supplies here. One really needs the strength of a full operatic delivery which would presumably fall well within the singer’s capabilities. That might be assisted by an arrangement of the accompaniment for full orchestral forces; the cycle could well withstand that sort of treatment. There are songs of real beauty here too, as in the rhapsodic contemplation of Even (track 11) with its disturbed murmuring undertow in the piano.
 
Despite my expressed reservations, there is nevertheless a considerable amount of very beautiful and very effective music in these three song cycles. We must express our thanks to Naxos for making them available. Those who admire the abilities of Heggie will obviously want this release for Eve-Song, and will have the advantage of discovering two other works from the composer’s earlier career. The other listed recording of Natural Selection with the composer at the piano (issued in 2013) I have not heard. As I have indicated, I prefer Bayrakdarian in the Ophelia pieces but no other disc offers this combination of songs, which is therefore self-recommending.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey