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Birds of Love and Prey
Andrew Earle SIMPSON (b. 1967)
Birds of Love and Prey (2014) [23:33]
Eric KITCHEN (b.1951)
The Olney Avian Verse of William Cowper (2000) [19:14]
Gabriel THIBAUDEAU (b. 1959)
Cycle Avicellus (2014) [18:12]
Deborah Sternberg (soprano)
Andrew Earle Simpson, Mark Vogel (piano)
rec. 2014/15, Spencerville Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, USA
NAXOS 8.579064 [61:09]

From the first notes of Eric Kitchen’s The Olney Avian Verse of William Cowper we are in the world inhabited by Copland and Barber at their most comforting. The composer writes that he wanted to ‘provide beautiful voices with another reason for singing’, an admirable aim that he has fully achieved. The work is melodious, open and easy to listen to. It brings pleasure at first hearing. Kitchen writes that much of the music ‘was derived from transcriptions of actual bird songs’. This can perhaps be heard more in the piano accompaniment, particular in the introductions, but have no fear, Messiaen this is not. Each song is self-contained, a tidy little whole, sometimes narrative, sometimes descriptive. The final song, ‘Invitation to the Redbreast’, touches on the renewal that is Spring and the entrancing sound of birdsong that announces that season. It is the most passionate of these five songs, the vocal lines rather more expansive, but never leaving the realm, to quote the composer again, of ‘ranges that I most enjoy hearing from the pleasant soprano voice.’

Given those ranges so appreciated by Eric Kitchen, I wonder what he made of Andrew Earle Simpson’s Birds of Love and Prey, where the vocal line frequently aims for the stratosphere, and in places not always easily explicable by the text. The composer writes that his song-cycle ‘contrasts songbirds and predator birds – and explores the assumptions relative to each (e.g. songbirds are sweet, predators are nasty).’ His songs seem to confirm those assumptions, with the possible exception of a bad-tempered, somewhat spiteful nightingale, even as she sings ‘… about love. All my song is about it. All love, of any kind, is good.’ The musical language is more advanced than is that of the Kitchen, with a certain amount of ‘folkiness’ present in one or two places too. The composer has certainly set himself challenges. Tennyson’s eagle – in the third song – is totally static for five lines, and only on the sixth does he fall ‘like a thunderbolt’. Finding music equal to such words is a real trial. The extract from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale is barely easier; they are words that do not readily lend themselves to a musical setting. The cycle is made up of seven songs, plus two passages of vocal bird imitation and one – Messiaen much closer here! – from the piano, the whole performed continuously.

Canadian composer Gabriel Thibaudeau is also generous in his use of the soprano’s upper register in his Cycle Avicellus. Indeed, in describing the second of the four songs he writes that it ‘uses a large ambitus, either at the piano or in the voice.’ The four songs are settings of poems in French by Mykalle Bielinski, each one on the subject of birds, and reflective rather than figurative. The harmonies played out in the 7-in-a-bar opening song intermittently evoke the spirit of Ravel, but the melodic and harmonic range throughout the work is quite wide. The composer describes the style as ‘modern impressionism’, and, of the second song again, designates the melody as ‘almost romantic’. I think he is close to the mark. The melodies, romantic or not, are sometimes angular, and the accompaniments highly charged, elaborate, and frequently feature constant movement, sometimes, it seems to me, to the detriment of the musical expression.

Deborah Sternberg was inspired to put together this collection of works on the theme of birds when she first got to know Eric Kitchen’s cycle. She then commissioned the other two works, both of which were therefore written with her voice in mind. Her note in the booklet explains how she funded the project, to the point of hiring her own recording engineer, Ed Kelly; this seems to confirm my impression that this is not a typical Naxos-inspired project. None the less the disc is perfectly well presented, with notes from the singer and the composers, as well as all the sung texts. The words of Thibaudeau’s work are given in the original French only, with a translation available on the Naxos website. The recording is excellent, the balance between the voice and the piano ideal.

Listening to the Kitchen first, Deborah Sternberg’s singing is fresh, clear and with a first-rate control of musical line. The voice itself is extremely attractive, making the whole experience a pleasant one. In the other two cycles, which call for a wider range of both tessitura and of expression, she can sound a little less at ease. A touch of shrillness appears from time to time in the upper regions, and though I have not had access to the score – and therefore might be wrong – there are occasional moments in the Thibaudeau where the tuning sounds a little suspect. The piano parts, on the whole, are demanding without allowing the player to show much individuality. They are dispatched with all necessary skill by both pianists.

William Hedley

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