BARBER: Knoxville — Summer of 1915. HARBISON: Mirabai Songs.STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress(excerpt). MENOTTI: The Old Maid and the Thief(excerpt). Dawn Upshaw, soprano; David Zinman conducting the Orchestra of St. Lukes. ELEKTRA/NONESUCH 9 79187-2 [DDDJ; 43:12. Produced by Robert Hurwitz.
This is an easy disc to review: a thoroughly delightful yet uncompromisingly artistic assemblage of 20th-century American vocal music. Try it, you’ll love it. There’s virtually nothing to criticize — OK, the timing is a little skimpy. As far as I’m concerned, my main reaction is, Give me more. How about Volumes 2 and 3?
I’ve been writing for years about the glories of 20th-century American vocal music — opera, song cycles, etc. (See my review of Helen-Kay Eberley’s wonderful American Girl collection back in Fanfare 7:4, pp. 292-4.) Finally, singers and producers have begun to select the gems of this repertoire, instead of the undistinguished dross indiscriminately thrown together on so many anonymous singer- or composer-funded contemporary recital discs.
Here, the program consists of an American classic, sui generis, a recent song cycle by a prominent member of today’s middle-aged generation of composers, and two opera excerpts. All are sung with great technical ease, idiomatic understanding, and superb musicianship by Dawn Upshaw, who is endowed with a lovely, penetrating yet smooth and light instrument. Instrumental accompaniments are excellent, as is recording quality.
Barber’s poignant evocation of nostalgic Americana needs little comment, but is rendered here as beautifully as I have ever heard. The Menotti excerpt, “What a curse for a woman is a timid man,” deserves to be more widely known, as it represents the composer at his most gorgeously lyrical and romantic. The four-part Stravinsky excerpt, “No word from Tom,” is also stunning, an irresistable tour-de-force of pseudo-Mozart. Both these fragments cry out to be heard again as soon as they end. John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs of 1982 represent the most demanding listening on the disc, although they are no less ingratiating. Mirabai was a mystical singer and dancer from 16th-century India and her songs have an ecstatic, erotic quality. Harbison’s brilliant and colorful settings most closely resemble the later vocal music of Leonard Bernstein, despite some exotic touches (such as the suggestion of gamelan music at the opening).
Harbison’s interesting, thoughtful notes on the entire program provide an additional bonus.