PASATIERI: Songbook

by Walter Simmons



PASATIERI Songbook • Sheri Greenawald, Karen Slack (sop); Victoria Livengood (mez); Jordan Shanahan (bar); Warren Jones (pn) • ALBANY TROY-901 (63:11 •)

A Rustling of AngelsThree Poems of Oscar Wilde. Three Poems of James AgeeDream Land. Overweight, Overwrought, Over You. Ophelia’s Lament. I Just Love My Voice. The Last Invocation. Orpheus.

This new release is a welcome complement to Albany’s recent recording of two of this composer’s comic operas. As prolific a purveyor of songs as of operas, Thomas Pasatieri has some 300 to his credit. Hence the 24 included here represent but a small sample, although they seem to have been selected from the full span of his compositional career. (Dates are not provided for every song, however.) The program comprises three cycles and six individual songs, the latter divided into two groups of three. Pasatieri’s songs are among his most personal creations, and offer a revealing glimpse into his creative personality. Like all really interesting composers, Pasatieri has his own individual musical dialect, within the generic language of neo-romanticism, although it may not be obvious or self-evident at first, as is often the case with composers who don’t set out to be “different.” But some immersion in the best of Pasatieri’s songs helps to pinpoint his unique “sound,” which involves a certain highly sensuous treatment of melody and harmony that at times almost approaches the most sophisticated of contemporaneous popular songs, such as the ballads of Burt Bacharach, for example.

Particularly exemplary are the Three Poems of James Agee, composed in 1974. These are among Pasatieri’s most frequently performed songs, with musical settings that underline the pathos implied in Agee’s gloomy, pessimistic poems. This cycle was recorded at least twice during the early 1980s (by Sharon Mabry and Theresa Treadway [this one re-issued on Albany TROY-841] ), but soprano Karen Slack’s rendition far exceeds either of theirs.

Equally representative but much more recent are the Three Poems of Oscar Wilde, composed in 1999 for Thomas Hampson. These are quite beautiful and moving—especially the first, “Hélas”—and are sympathetically presented by baritone Jordan Shanahan.

A Rustling of Angels is a cycle of twelve songs, composed in 2000. Set to largely well-known, direct and straightforward poetry, these songs are somewhat less demanding vocally, and are intentionally designed to be useful to vocal students as well as professionals. Although the last one, a setting of Thomas Love Peacock’s “Beneath the Cypress Shade,” is quite lovely, I found most of the others somewhat less personal, falling into a kind of anonymous American neo-romanticism. On this recording the vocal responsibilities of the cycle are shared among the four singers. 

Of the individual items, Ophelia’s Lament is more than just a “song,” but rather a histrionic setting of Ophelia’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet—perhaps the most aesthetically ambitious effort on the program, and the one that most clearly represents the composer’s expressive range. Although originally composed in 1975, the rendition offered here by Sheri Greenawald deviates considerably from the work as originally published. Pasatieri’s sensitive setting of Christina Rosetti’s “Dream Land” is also worthy of note. Included as well are novelty items that show up frequently as encores on vocal recitals: settings of Sheila Nadler’s “Overweight, Overwrought, Over You,” and Gerald Walker’s “I Just Love My Voice.” This curmudgeonly reviewer does not find this sort of thing amusing, and feels that it may skew the public’s impression of Pasatieri’s talents to his detriment.

Handpicked by the composer no doubt, the singers are generally good. As noted in my review of the other recent Pasatieri release, soprano Sheri Greenawald has maintained an enduring involvement with this composer’s music, which suits her voice and temperament especially well. The other soprano, Karen Slack, is excellent also. The contributions of mezzo Victoria Livengood and baritone Jordan Shanahan are unfortunately marred by a few unfortunate moments of vocal infelicity. Pianist Warren Jones proves to be an able accompanist.

Listening to 24 songs by one composer in one sitting is perhaps not the most rewarding or ideal way to experience this CD, as the listener may become satiated by one sensibility. However, those who would like to become better acquainted with Pasatieri’s creative personality may find this to be the most illuminating means currently available.