Soprano Patrice Michaels relishes ambitious recording projects that demand an inordinate range of vocal and intellectual talent — projects the average modern diva couldn’t attempt. This CD presents performances ranging from dramatic characterizations in Letters from Composers to flat-out coloratura in Vaughan Williams’ Three Vocalises for Soprano and Clarinet.
“What a delightful surprise,” Argento says of the CD. “Not only does Miss Michaels Bedi sing these songs beautifully, but her various partners . . . are equally sensitive performers. Bravo to all.”
The disc includes the world premiere recording of Argento’s Songs about Spring for voice and piano, based on poems by e.e. cummings. “This first recording . . . should serve as a model for all future performances,” the composer says. Argento composed this song cycle (his first) while still an undergraduate at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute of Music.
Here, too, is the only available CD recording of Letters from Composers for voice and guitar. Based on letters and fragments of letters written by Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Debussy, Puccini, and Schumann, they illustrate a wide range of personal problems having almost no relevance to their compositional careers. The musical settings show Argento’s understanding of each composer’s expressive style.
To Be Sung Upon the Water (Wordsworth settings scored for high voice, clarinet, and piano) is available in only one other version — a reissue from the 1970s. The cycle is noteworthy for the subtle and sensitive use of clarinet and bass clarinet (performed here by Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist Larry Combs).
The clarinet reappears in Vaughan Williams’ Three Vocalises for Soprano and Clarinet, one of the composer’s last works. Vaughan Williams’ love of early English folk music is evident in the song selections from Along the Field, his settings of A.E. Housman poems for the unusual combination of voice and violin. These are the only available CD versions of these songs and vocalises.
Miss Michaels studied composition with Argento at the University of Minnesota. They share a fondness for intimate vocal forms and a distinct literary sensibility. “Argento’s works impress on the listeners a strong musical personality, a result of his being drawn perpetually to the human voice” (New Grove Dictionary of American Music). For her part, Miss Michaels told Fanfare magazine (September / October 1996) in an interview: “I’ve always been attracted to the literary impulse behind the music.” Besides producing musical sounds, she wants to tell stories.
DOMINICK ARGENTO (b. 1927)
Letters from Composers
Songs About Spring
To Be Sung Upon the Water
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Three Vocalises for Soprano and Clarinet
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Selections from Along the Field
1: Jeffrey Kust, guitar
8: Elizabeth Buccheri, piano
13: Larry Combs, clarinet
Elizabeth Buccheri, piano
21: Larry Combs, clarinet
24: Elliott Golub, violin
What the Critics Are Saying
“A thoroughly satisfying release.”
“Dominick Argento (b. 1927) . . . is one the leading living exponents of American neo-Romanticism . . . Patrice Michaels Bedi[‘s] . . . instrument is beautifully shaped, balanced, and focused . . . I find her a major talent for interpretation of American vocal music. The remaining performers contribute with great skill and sensitivity, and the sound is almost ideal.”
Program NotesDownload Album Booklet
To Be Sung Upon the Water
Notes by W. Stuart Pope
Dominick Argento was born in York, Pennsylvania on October 27, 1927. His parents were innkeepers from Italy. Argento first studied composition at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore with Hugo Weisgall, Nicolas Nabokov and Henry Cowell. Graduate study was at the Eastman School of Music, with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. He took yearly courses with Luigi Dalapiccola in Flroence, Italy, and has returned regularly to spend summers in Forence, his second home and source of considerable inspiration. Argento has been on the faculty of the University of Minnesota since 1958 and is now a Regents Professor. In 1975, Dominick Argento received the Pulitzer Prize for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Wolff.
Letters From Composers
The cycle Letters from Composers was written for and dedicated to tenor Vern Sutton and guitarist Jeffrey Van. The texts are letters or fragments of letters written by Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Debussy, Puccini and Schumann. They reveal a wide range of problems, having almost no relevance to their compositional careers: illness, anger, loneliness, penury, love, even happiness. Dominick Argento’s settings show his clear understanding of each composer’s expressive style.
Chopin, laid low with tuberculosis, staying with George Sand in Majorca, as a rest from the bustle of Paris, describes to a friend the quiet of his surroundings and the relaxed manner of the lifestyle in Palma. Chopin’s prose is poetic to an extreme, and Argento has set it to music that is as poetic as the writer’s own nocturnes.
Mozart writes to his father in Vienna to tell of his dismissal by the archbishop of Salzburg and plead for understanding.
Schubert corresponds with his friend Kupelwieser in Rome, despairing of his health, lack of money, even thoughts of failure…and in this fragment, longing for death to take away his burdens. He recalls a phrase of a song he wrote years before (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), “my peace is gone, my heart is heavy,” which is quoted (musically) in the song. Argento also uses a frequent Schubertian device: hovering between major and minor.
Bach, in the obsequious, baroque form of address required in his time writes to the Town Council of Leipzig to beg the redressing of a grievance; a prominent local businessman has married out of town and thus cheated Bach of his fee as organist for he ceremony, which should have taken place in St. Thomas’ Church. Argento gives the song recitative, inversions, canons, augmentation, etc…a veritable baroque delight.
Debussy is writing to a friend; near the end of his life, he is wracked with brain cancer and despairing of the futility of World War I, which rages on in Europe. In his setting, Argento eschews the use of bar lines and rarely has the singer and guitarist together; rather, the instrument comments on the words, giving emphasis to the prose.
Whereas Chopin would appear to miss the formality of Paris, Puccini yearns to leave it (shortly after the triumph of La Boheme) to return to his beloved Italy with its informality and rural atmosphere. His letter is wonderfully poetic in spite of his hatred for so much of Paris life. The setting is rhythmic, measured, and bold.
Lastly, a love song: Robert Schumann to Clara, his wife-to-be. Some of us, receiving and reading this letter might have had second thoughts about the marriage. Schumann takes Pygmalion-like credit for making his bride worthy of his hand. Dominick Argento has given us a beautiful setting that could certainly stand on its own in a recital program. In this song and, for that matter, in the Puccini setting, one has a foretaste of the yet-to-come Argento cycle, “Casa Guidi,” a setting for mezzo-soprano and orchestra of letters written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her sister in London from the villa in Florence where she lived with her husband Robert.
Songs About Spring
Argento composed Songs About Spring, his settings of texts by e.e. cummings, while an undergraduate at the Peabody Institute. The cycle was first performed in May, 1951 by Carolyn Bailey, the composer’s wife, with her husband at the piano. At the Eastman School of Music, Argento made a chamber orchestra version which had its first performance there in July 1960, with Carolyn Bailey, soprano, and Frederick Fennell, conducting. This simply charming work was Argento’s first song cycle; his setting of the words shows a degree of fluency unlikely at such an early point in his career. As this recording will attest, however, Argento has always had a wonderful way with words. Can we thank his Italian heritage or his marriage to a very talented singer? Surely both.
“Who knows if the moon’s a balloon” is set as a waltz that invites one to whirl away to the balloon/moon. The quiet simplicity of “Spring is like a perhaps hand” carefully matches in song the poet’s descriptive verse. “In just spring” returns us to the waltz-like setting as it tells of children at play outdoors after an imprisoning winter. “In spring comes” is a canon at the unison, the piano echoing the meditative vocal line. “When faced called flowers float out of the ground” brings us back to dance a waltz once again, rejoicing at the return of spring.
To Be Sung Upon the Water
To Be Sung Upon the Water (Barcarolles and Nocturnes) was composed in 1973. Dominick Argento has set poems and sections of poems by William Wordsworth for high voice, piano, and clarinet (also bass clarinet).
The composer has selected the verses with his customary care and skill, symmetrically fashioning arches within arches: Prologue and Epilogue forming the frame for pairs of poems using time of day and emotional attitude as reference points. His settings have produced a most singable cycle, grateful for the voice and subtle in the use of the clarinet, with the bass instrument most effective in songs where it is used.
The cycle opens with a Barcarolle describing the discovery of the things one sees in the whereas one glides along. Thus Argento introduces the listener to the words and music in the next two songs, which describe the tranquility at night of and nocturnal birdsong on the water. The fourth song, “Fair is the Swan,” is a particularly effective setting for voice and bass clarinet. The majesty of the mute creature as it sails across the still water of the lake in the moonlight is wonderfully portrayed. Next we hear “In Memory of Schubert,” perhaps the heart of the cycle. Titled by Argento in homage to the earlier master, Wordsworth wrote the poem for fellow poet and friend Collins. The song is a glorious melody with a moving and satisfying piano accompaniment; all calm and serene polytonality. Next comes a prayer for safety on the water, the voice part maestoso against the rapidly moving piano and bass clarinet, followed by a return to solemnity and prayerful calm. The seventh song, a rhapsody, further describes the movements of the lake at night through rapidly moving, pianissimo instruments and voice; by the song’s end, the “whole wide lake in deep response is hushed…” The concluding Epilogue is a setting of the familiar Wordsworth sonnet “The world is too much with us.” The composer has given us a virtual duet for voice and clarinet with piano accompaniment. He sums up the cycle in both words and music by recalling motifs from previous songs.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in Sown Ampney, a village in Gloucestershire. This charming place is now well known to church musicians from the hymn tune Vaughan Williams wrote and named for it: Down Ampney (“Come down, O love Divine”). The composer died in London in 1958. He was educated at Charterhouse School, and Cambridge University, and studied at the Royal College of Music with Max Bruch. He wrote music in all forms, including nine symphonies, six concertos, a host of vocal music, five operas, and well over one hundred folksong arrangements.
Vaughan Williams composed his song cycle Along the Field in 1927. At its premiere, only excerpts of the complete cycle of eight songs were performed. The unusual use of the violin as the accompanying instrument is something that Gustav Holst, the composer’s close friend, had earlier successfully employed. The poems are by A.E. Housman. Vaughan Williams has set them with customary sensitivity. The title song is particularly beautiful. “Fancy’s Knell” is perhaps the most ambitious of the set, with the violin providing a dance tune commentary on the poem.
The Three Vocalises for Soprano and Clarinet is one of Vaughan Williams’ last works; it was first performed on October 8, 1958, in Manchester, England, less than one month after his death.
W. Stuart Pope is a former President of the music publishing house, Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.
Total Time: 79:34
Recorded: June 17-21, 1996 in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago
Producer: James Ginsburg
Engineers: Mitchell G. Heller and Lawrence Rock
Cover Photography: Dan Rest and Erik S. Lieber
Design: Cheryl A Boncuore
Notes: W. Stuart Pope
© 1996 Cedille Records/Cedille Chicago