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A Certain Slant of Light – Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Eight poems of Emily Dickinson (1948/1950) [19:59]
Jake HEGGIE (b. 1961)
Newer Every Day (2014) [11:47]
Gordon GETTY (b. 1933)
Four Dickinson Songs (2008) [6:49]
Michael TILSON THOMAS (b. 1944)
Selections from Poems of Emily Dickinson (2001) [13:22]
Lisa Delan (soprano), Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille / Lawrence Foster
rec. Friche de la Belle de Mai, Marseille, 2017
PENTATONE PTC5186634 SACD [52:10]

While famous as one of the great American poets, Emily Dickinson knew music well. As a young, middle class lady of accomplishment, she had an effective musical training, studying piano and voice, and she avidly pursued music in her youth. While she later made poetry her vocation, much of her poetry is influenced by her earlier musical training - there are umpteen musical metaphors for nature, for example - and the meter of her verse has always appealed to composers.

American soprano Lisa Delan loves Dickinson’s poetry, and she has gathered here a collection of Dickinson songs set by American composers, most of whom are still alive. The only deceased one is Copland, whose set of eight songs has an acoustic resonance shared with his music of the great open spaces, like Appalachian Spring or the Third Symphony. He delights in creating big spaces between, say, glittering solo winds at the top of the orchestra and double basses at the bottom. Happily the voice never risks being lost in this, though that’s also helped by Delan’s rather penetrating (though not unpleasant) tone, no doubt assisted by the Pentatone engineers.

The songs themselves are rather unlovely, though. Their dominant texture is prickly rather than warm, and sometimes the tone seems a little misplaced. The music for Because I could not stop for Death, for example, is positively jaunty in places, which is surely out of keeping with the spirit of the poem.

I felt the same way about Michael Tilson Thomas’ collection, a series of impressively orchestrated little tone poems that, nevertheless, aren't particularly memorable and seem to eschew melodic sweep in a way that doesn’t really help their subject matter. The Bible is clever, but that’s more down to the text than the music; though Take all away from me does manage some persuasive sweep in its opening phrases.

Gordon Getty’s songs are more intriguing to the ear, using lots of effects both sparingly and effectively to evoke the spirit of the poems. A bird came down the walk is particularly inspired, with effects ranging from a twiddling harpsichord to a soaring flute, and his setting of Because I could not stop for Death is great. It’s as jaunty as Copland’s but he took me with him as a listener much more than Copland did, with a whole aural journey that’s very effective.

Jake Heggie is the only composer on the disc who gives a name to his collection, taking his inspiration from Dickinson’s (rather lovely) line that “We turn not older with the years, but newer every day.” That doesn’t really lend a theme to the poems, but they’re beautifully composed anyway. Heggie’s gift for melody and for textural beauty comes through repeatedly, such as the husky strings of That I did always love; and there is a good deal of humour in the spark of I’m Nobody! Who are you? and the buzzing strings of Fame.

The French orchestra play the music as though entirely convinced by the project, and American conductor Lawrence Foster directs it with similar conviction. Delan’s voice is similarly dedicated, if ever so slightly squally in places. Still, the project would surely not exist without her, and we should be glad that it does, so that’s a reason for praise.

Simon Thompson

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