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Songs to Emily Dickinson’s texts
Nadine Benjamin (soprano)
Nicole Panizza (piano)
rec. 2018, Steinway Recording Studios, Fulbeck, Lincolnshire, England
STONE RECORDS 5060192780864 [78:50]

A disc devoted to a single poet is nothing new. Think Goethe or Hugo to name but two. It is more unusual to find a disc dedicated to the poems of a woman. Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson have featured on many discs over the years, but the other composers featured here are not well represented in the catalogues. That makes this recital all the more welcome.

Aaron Copland’s magnificent settings of Dickinson’s poetry need little introduction these days. It has become a staple for sopranos seeking to do a recital of twentieth-century songs especially by American composers. Composed in 1950, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson are Copland’s longest work for solo voice and piano. Each song, apart from “The Chariot”, takes its title from the first line of the poem (rather than titles from Dickinson’s edited collections). Copland suggests that, in a way, there is an influence of Mahler on these songs, perhaps due to Dickinson’s and Mahler’s preoccupation with death. The songs were not an overnight success. At first there only was a lukewarm reception, but they have now come to be regarded as one of Copland’s best works. Nadine Benjamin and Nicole Panizza give a strong performance, but it does not topple my favourite accounts of these songs.

My real interest lies in the settings other four composers, starting with those by Italian-American composer Luigi Zaninelli. He is equally at home composing jazz and classical pieces, although he uses the name Lou Hayward for his jazz compositions. His settings of seven of Dickinson’s epigrams were completed in 2002 and published the following year. These brief, sometimes satirical statements are expertly set, with concise melodic settings.

These are followed by nine songs by the American Juliana Hall, who seems to specialise in songs and vocal chamber music; she has composed more than fifty song cycles. Here we are presented with two short cycles and a standalone song. The first of these, “To Meet a Flower”, presents three beautifully set nature poems by Dickinson, a form in which she excelled, from 2009 and only premiered in 2016 by the present singer. This is followed by “A Northeast Storm” from 2015, one of a series of nine letter songs set by different composers. This charming song is a setting of Dickinson’s letter to her brother Austin. The final cycle, “In Reverence”, is Hall’s earliest published work. Written in 1985, it was composed as a wedding present for a friend. Again, despite their early composition, these songs show an ability and sensibility that Hall was to carry through into the later songs, as well as some vocal high jinks.

The final two songs bring us a recipe and a wonderfully evocative almost jazz-like rendition of “This Little Rose”. The first of these is Sylvia Glickman’s setting of “Black Cake”. She was inspired to compose it after hearing the recipe by Emily Dickinson recited at Julie Harris’s show about the poet in the 1970s. Its stark piano line is ideal for the blank lines of the recipe. The other is a beautiful setting by Ella Jarman-Pinto. It has a catching lilt in the voice, whilst the piano line evokes easy jazz lines, making this one of the most memorable songs on this disc.

The voice of Nadine Benjamin may not be to everyone’s taste. Her distinct vibrato may put off some people, but listen a couple of times and you come to appreciate the mellifluous character of her singing; it really comes to the fore in the Juliana Hall and Ella Jarman-Pinto songs. Nicole Panizza proves herself to be a thoughtful accompanist and excellent pianist. Her playing adds up to a real partnership with Benjamin. The recorded sound is very good, andt the booklet offers good notes and full texts. This disc is a real winner, especially for the Hall songs, which should be performed more often.

Stuart Sillitoe

Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson
No. 1. Nature, the Gentlest Mother [4:04]
No. 2. There Came a Wind Like a Bugle [1:33]
No. 3. Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven? [2:00]
No. 4. The World Feels Dusty [1:39]
No. 5. Heart, We Will Forget Him [1:59]
No. 6. Dear March, Come In! [2:16]
No. 7. Sleep Is Supposed to Be [3:13]
No. 8. When They Come Back [2:28]
No. 9. I Felt a Funeral in My Brain [2:10]
No. 10. I've Heard an Organ Talk Sometimes [2:17]
No. 11. Going to Heaven! [3:30]
No. 12. The Chariot [3;20]
Luigi ZANINELLI (b. 1932)
Seven Epigrams of Emily Dickinson
No. 1. Had I Pleasure You Had Not [1:19]
No. 2. Who Knows Where Our Hearts Go [1:52]
No. 3. I Trust This Sweet May Morning [1:28]
No. 4. We Wouldn't Mind the Sun Dear [1:40]
No. 5. I Am Studying Music Now [0:52]
No. 6. Till It Has Loved [1:43]
No. 7. You Might Not Know I Remembered You [2:01]
Juliana HALL (b. 1952)
To Meet a Flower
No. 1. Whose Are the Little Beds I Asked [5:37]
No. 2. God Made a Little Gentian [2:45]
No. 3. A daisy soft follows the sun [5:45]
A Northeast Storm [3:07]
In Reverence
No. 1. It Is an Honourable Thought [1:07]
No. 2. Lightly Stepped a Yellow Star [1:31]
No. 3. Prayer Is the Little Implement [2:00]
No. 4. Papa Above! [1:41]
No. 5. The Grave My Little Cottage Is [2:13]
Sylvia GLICKMAN (1932-2006)
Black Cake: A Recipe by Emily Dickinson [6:01]
Ella JARMAN-PINTO (b. 1989)
This Little Rose [4:25]

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