ARGENTO To Be Sung Upon the Water. BRITTEN Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac) – Ellen Shade (sop) ; John Stewart (ten); Charles Russo (cls); Donald Hassard, Martin Katz (pn) – PHOENIX PHCD-129, analog (60:35 &)
ARGENTO Songs about Spring. Six Elizabethan Songs– Jean Danton (sop); Thomas Stumpf (pn); Chamber Ensemble; C. Thomas Brooks, cond Ÿ ALBANY TROY-264 (65:18 &)
& A. COOKE Three Songs of Innocence. Nocturnes. MOYLAN For a Sleeping Child—Lullabies and Midnight Musings For a Sleeping Child—Lullabies and Midnight Musings
Though born in Pennsylvania (in 1927), Dominick Argento has been based in Minnesota for many years, his career benefiting significantly from that state’s notably supportive attitude toward its own composers. His music is generally traditional in its materials and syntax and, like many Italian-American composers — Giannini, Menotti, and Pasatieri, for example — Argento has lavished particular attention on operatic and vocal music. Yet, unlike them, Argento has always found favor among critics, even winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. This is probably because, instead of the unfashionably direct and emotionally hard-hitting post-verismo style embraced by them, Argento has pursued a more rarefied, intellectually sophisticated approach, very much like the path followed by Benjamin Britten, as is demonstrated by the juxtaposition of these two composers on a recent Phoenix reissue of performances originally available on Desto LPs. However, also as in the case of the three others noted above, Argento’s discography has never begun to approximate either the scope or the depth of his output.
To Be Sung Upon the Water is a major, half-hour cycle of Wordsworth settings scored for voice, clarinet (sometimes bass), and piano. It was composed in 1972 — just two years before the justly-praised Virginia Woolf settings that won Argento the Pulitzer. The composer selected the verses to form a homage to Nature, although the cycle is conceived as a tribute to Schubert as well, and subtle references to that master permeate the work. The work is not easy listening, by any means, although the music itself is not truly atonal, nor is the harmonic language abrasively dissonant. But the vocal lines do not follow conventional melodic patterns of tonal resolution, as compared with the poignantly ingratiating melodies of Samuel Barber, for example. To appreciate a cycle like this requires a good deal of concentration and a close reading of the texts. Such an investment of attention is rewarded by the gradual realization of some precious moments of insight. The performance offered here is subtle, polished, and searching.
I must confess that I have never been strongly attracted to the rather dry reserve and austere detachment of Benjamin Britten’s compositional persona, although I do appreciate and enjoy a number of his works from the late 1930s through the mid 50s. Both the seven Michelangelo settings and the Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac) date from that period and are fine examples of Britten’s meticulous, sensitive, and highly intelligent musical imagination, while clearly underlining the aesthetic affinity shared with Argento. The Michelangelo settings (sung in Italian, though only English texts are provided) are lean, supple, and quite Italianate, though in the Monteverdi sense rather than the Puccini. In Abraham and Isaac, the influence of Stravinsky’s dry approach to sonority, spareness of texture, and generally constricted sensibility is clearly evident, though these qualities lend a certain eerie detachment that enhances the work’s effect and sets off some lovely moments. Although both Britten works have been available on a number of different recordings, most notably and definitively featuring tenor Peter Pears, the readings offered here are excellent.
The recent Albany CD featuring soprano Jean Danton makes a further contribution to the Argento discography, but has little otherwise to recommend it. Songs About Spring comprise five rather early (1954) and not terribly interesting settings of e.e. cummings poems. These reveal a less individual voice than the composer’s more mature works, reflecting the mainstream American art-song genre of the time, as exemplified by, say, Ned Rorem in his better-known songs.
Six Elizabethan Songs are among Argento’s most frequently performed works, and deservedly so. They were originally composed in 1958 for voice and piano, but a very successful alternate arrangement of the accompaniment for an ensemble of flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord was made several years later. The crisp delicacy and transparency of this arrangement highlights the “neo-Elizabethan” quality of the music. The settings of poems by Shakespeare and his contemporaries are delightful and quite accessible, airy in texture and light in weight, but rather sophisticated and never trite or slick.
The new Albany release also offers two groups of songs by English composer Arnold Cooke (b. 1906). Both cycles combine a gentle yet straightforward lyricism that strikes me as typically English with some mannerisms clearly traceable to Hindemith, with whom Cooke studied. None of these songs, however, captured my interest or attention.
In addition to composing, William Moylan (b. 1956) is active as a record producer, heading the Recording Center at the University of Massachusetts (Lowell). This disc presents him in both capacities. The group of lullabies featured here was written specifically for Jean Danton and this recording, and is scored for soprano, clarinet, and piano. I am sorry to report that these songs, with their simple melodies and blandly anonymous harmonizations, made virtually no impact whatsoever.
Jean Danton owns an attractive soprano voice and maintains accurate intonation. However, she offers little at all in the way of interpretation, expression, or characterization, leading the disc to become tediously monotonous rather early on. Furthermore, she begins to lose control with any stress away from the midpoint in pitch or volume. The various accompanying instrumentalists fulfill their roles adequately.