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Charles IVES(1874-1954) Henry COWELL (1897-1965) The Dream Bridge- Songs
Aylish Kerrigan (mezzo soprano)
Vladimir Valdivia (piano)
rec. 2016, Sonic Arts Research Centre, Belfast, UK MÉTIERMSV28577 [69:35]
This was a difficult CD to review. In fact, I hardly knew where to start. Although I have heard the odd vocal number from both composers, it is a repertoire that is largely beyond my ken. The main problem was the sheer weight of material. I find it very difficult to sit down and listen to 19 songs (Ives) or 11 songs (Cowell) at one sitting. This applies to anything from Frank Sinatra to Gerald Finzi by way of Gerry and the Pacemakers. To my ear, they all start to sound alike. I could not work out a strategy to appreciate (or otherwise) this music.
Charles Ives’s examples are not presented in any logical order that I can divine. I did wonder if it was based on a stylistic selection but cannot equate this to the batting order. Everything tells me that I should not like them. They are written with a hugely diverse stylistic range. A major essay on the Charles Ives Website hosted on MusicWeb International explains that: “Ives’s songs derive from an enormously wide variety of musical traditions, from the German lied tradition (and European art song in general), to American parlour songs, hymns, and folk tunes. In addition, Ives’ own relentless experimentation, which often bore little resemblance to anything that preceded him, led to a body of works that still presents formidable obstacles to any performer…” I would not wish to try and categorise the material presented on this CD according to this scheme; however, they do represent a wide variety of styles. They range from the naïve to the complex and are full of allusions to musical achievements as diverse as ‘Handel’ and ‘Hoe-downs’. I found that I enjoyed most of these songs but did not feel inspired to make a study of them.
The master-work here is ‘General William Booth Enters into Heaven’ to a text by Vachel Lindsay. Some listeners could despise the ‘strange’ noises, but to me it is ‘primitive’ in the best sense of the word. It is a wild piece that certainly “challenges the singer’s interpretive abilities” and, as the liner notes suggest, requires “the vocally convincing persona of a narrator, General Booth, pale drug fiends, the ‘saved’, big-voiced lassies playing banjos, and the gentle saviour, Jesus. The entourage enters Heaven, led by Booth, saved by the blood of the Lamb”.
Turning to the Henry Cowell songs, once I had studied the dates, I noted that they are performed largely in chronological order of composition. Eleven examples are presented here, bookended by two remarkable piano pieces – ‘Tides of Manaunaun’ and ‘Aeolian Harp’. This latter number is played on the strings inside the piano, creating a magical, ethereal effect. The former, which celebrates the great sea-god of Celtic mythology makes use of huge clusters, an innocuous folk-tune and sumptuous harmonies. It is probably Cowell’s best-known work.
This recital represents a tiny percentage of what he wrote. I understand that there are some 966 known compositions by Cowell, of which some 180 are songs. Most of them remain to be published. I believe that there are only a handful of CDs dedicated to this repertoire: I have not previously listened to any of them.
Cowell went through several periods of musical development. There are the early works, which have been described as naïve, this was followed by experiments in ‘avant-garde’ techniques. Then, there were the ‘ultra-modernist’ pieces. And not forgetting various experiments with folk music. In his final years, Henry Cowell achieved a fusion of all these styles.
Cowell set a wide-range of poets and writers as can be seen in the track listing. Most of the songs are standalone, although there were a few cycles or groups. A good example of the latter is Three Songs of Padraic Colum presented on this disc. These, incidentally, are rather conservative in their sound world. In fact, I would say that the word ‘conformist’ seems to apply to most of these songs, despite the composer’s ‘bad boy’ image. Even allowing the ‘prepared piano’ and ‘mild Sprechstimme’ and extended vocal techniques used – see ‘Mice Lament’ and ‘Because the Cat’, they are approachable and do not repel by their ‘advanced’ sound world. I think that Cowell was well-able to synthesize the various elements in his compositional toolbox.
I did not warm to Aylish Kerrigan’s voice, though I cannot quite put my finger on why not. Sometimes, I feel that I am listening to more than one vocalist depending on which part of her range she is singing in. While often unbelievably beautiful, sometimes she is a bit edgy. Generally, however, totally convincing. The pianist gives a great account of all these accompaniments and rises to the challenge of the ‘prepared-piano’ sounds.
The liner notes written by Kerrigan provide basic information by way of an introduction to these works. The texts are included as well biographical information about the performers. I noted that other reference works give different dates of composition for several of these songs. I have stuck with those cited in the liner notes.
My suggestion is to take these songs a few at a time, follow the texts and enjoy. They may not all be to your taste, but in and amongst them, there are many magical and sometimes even quite beautiful moments. ‘Advanced’ piano techniques may not be to everyone’s taste, but they can be, in their place, most effective.
John France Contents Ives
Slow March (Ives Family) (1888) [1:39]
Waltz (Charles Ives) (1895) [1:30]
An Old Flame (Charles Ives) (1896) [2:04]
In the Alley (Charles Ives) 1896) [2:15]
The Side Show (Charles Ives) (1921) [0:40]
Old Home Day (Charles Ives) (1920) [3:24]
Romanzo di Central Park (Leigh Hunt) (1900) [1:47]
Walking (Charles Ives) (1902) [2:35]
At the River (Robert Lowry) (arr. 1916) [1:35]
Watchman (John Bowring) (1913) [1:46]
Tom Sails Away (Charles Ives) (1917) [2:24]
Maple Leaves (T.B. Aldrich) (1920) [0:52]
Ann Street (Maurice Morris) (1921) [1:09]
The Circus Band (Charles Ives) (1894) [2:38]
Walt Whitman (Walt Whitman) (1921) [0:56]
Afterglow (James Fenimore Cooper, Jr.) (1919) [1:54]
Charlie Rutlage (Traditional, collected John A. Lomax) (1914/5) [3:03]
from ‘The Swimmers’ (Louis Untermeyer) (1921) [1:46]
General William Booth Enters into Heaven (Vachel Lindsay) (1914) [5:56]
Tides of Manaunaun (piano piece) (1917) [3:02]
St Agnes Morning, L.152 (Maxwell Anderson) (1914) [2:52]
The Dream Bridge, L.175 (Clark Ashton Smith) (1915) [1:43]
April, L.250 (Ezra Pound) (1918) [1:10]
Music When Soft Voices Die, L.358 (Percy Bysshe Shelley) (1922) [1:44]
Where She Lies, L.400 (Edna St Vincent Millay) (1924) [1:45]
How Old is Song? L.477 (Harry Cowell) (1931) [3:01]
Mice Lament, L.604 (Ella Grainger) (1940) [2:09]
Because the Cat, L.820 (Barbara Allan Davis) (1951-55?) [1:02] Three Songs of Padraic Colum – I. Crane, L.825 [1:39]; II. I Heard in the Night, L.826 [2:10]; III. Night Fliers, L.827 (1956) [2:27]
Aeolian Harp (piano solo) (1923) [2:26]
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