Marga RICHTER (b.1926)
Sarah, do not mourn me dead (1995)
Two Chinese Songs (1952)
Wild Moon (2009)
Two Shakespeare Sonnets (2007)
Dew-drops on a lotus leaf (2002)
William George (tenor)
Andrea Lodge (piano)
rec. Staller Centre for the Arts Recital Hall, Stony Brook University, New York, 27-30 August 2013
REDSHIFT TK435 [63.16]
Writing in the second volume of Alan Blyth’s compendium Song on record (1988), those two redoubtable British critics John Steane and Michael Kennedy both lamented the dearth of composers prepared to engage with English poets in songs for voice and piano. Will Crutchfield in the same volume pointed to a similar lack of successors to Copland, Barber and Rorem in America. Well here, some thirty years later, we have an American composer whose output for voice and piano extends far enough to encompass three CDs of which this is the first to be released.
Marga Richter is a very good song composer indeed. This disc includes a substantial cycle, Dew-drops on a lotus leaf, comprising 39 songs — some admittedly very brief — based on Japanese poems by Ryokan; two Chinese songs; one modern American setting; one with a text drawn from a letter by a soldier killed in the American Civil War; and, just to show convincingly that there is life in the old dog yet, two settings of Shakespeare sonnets. So there is plenty of variety here, both of mood and texture. The songs span a period of 57 years, so there is a chance too to engage with Richter’s changing musical style with the most recent song Wild moon achieving a positively operatic grandeur in its treatment of a text by the composer’s friend Phyllis Latimer Roberts (1923-2013). One looks forward with much interest to what treasures may be forthcoming in the next two projected volumes of the cycle.
At the same time one very much hopes that the performances there will be better than they are here. Tenor William George is described in his booklet biography as “lead singer-songwriter for the Vancouver roots-rock band Horse Opera” as well as a widely performed composer. He is clearly an intelligent singer, but his voice is far from classical in style, throaty and ill-supported in places with some suspect tuning apparent. His diction is pretty abysmal too; in the first song on this disc the line “How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness” is delivered with such distortion of vowel sounds and swallowing of consonants that the meaning would be absolutely indecipherable without the provided text. He is not helped, either, by the peculiarities of the vocal setting in Dew-drops on a lotus leaf, which is described as a “song cycle for tenor (or counter-tenor) and piano”. Now, the demands of a tenor and a counter-tenor voice in music of the same pitch are inevitably going to be diametrically opposed. A tenor voice rising into head voice and falsetto will be strongest on the lower notes; a counter-tenor dropping down into the low alto register will be weakest in the same area. At times Richter seems to expect both, which is asking for the impossible in the same voice. Oddly enough George’s sense of tuning and poise appears more assured in the upper counter-tenor reaches than in his natural full-voiced tenor; there are some beautifully floated passages in places. Elsewhere his tone, supported by a rather artificial-sounding echo, does not do the music justice and the echo does sound artificial, if only because Andrea Lodge’s well-delivered piano tone is seriously lacking in reverberation. Indeed, in places it sounds almost like an upright or an electronic instrument.
There are several other discs of music by the composer in the catalogues; one, of orchestral music conducted by Gerard Schwarz, is entirely devoted to Richter’s music, and very impressive it is too (Ravello RR7867). Those who are interested in the output of someone who is clearly a very interesting composer should probably investigate that release first. Then, if they find the idiom attractive, listeners may care to explore this disc of songs bearing in mind the fact that the performances may not be the final word in style. The presentation of this issue, on the other hand, is very good. The attractive gatefold sleeve contains a full-colour twenty-page booklet with copious and well-chosen illustrations as well as the complete texts of all the poems set – which, as I have observed, will be needed. The only oddity is that no durations are given for any of the individual items, nor indeed for the album as a whole.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Other Marga Richter CDs reviewed on MusicWeb International:-
Orchestral Excursions - Leonarda
Snow Mountain - Leonarda
Riders to the Sea - Leonarda
Blackberry Vines and Winter Fruit - Leonarda