ARGENTO: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. & Songs by CARTER, COWELL, FLANAGAN, HUNDLEY, GORDON, SCHOCKER, LEHMMAN, ROREM, BAKER, MENOTTI, & TURINA

by Walter Simmons



PERMIT ME VOYAGE: SONGS BY AMERICAN COMPOSERS. Mary Ann Hart mezzo soprano; Dennis Helmrich, piano. ALBANY TROY-118 [DDD]; 71:49. Produced by Judith Sherman. ARGENTO: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. CARTER: Voyage. COWELL: Three Songs. FLANAGAN: Two Songs. HUNDLEY: Four Songs GORDON: Two Songs. SCHOCKER: Mama Called

MOSTLY AMERICANA. Jennifer Poffenberger, soprano; Lori Piitz piano. ENHARMONIC ENCD93-012 [DDD?]; 66:06. Produced by David DeBoor Canfield. (Available from: Ars Antiqua, 6060 McNeely Street, Ellettsville. Indiana 47429) HUNDLEY: Eight Songs. LEHMAN: Pilgrim Songs. ROREM: Five Songs.BAKER: Song Cycle. MENOTTI: The Medium (Monica’s Aria) TURINA: Poema en forma de canciones

Here are two enjoyable and informative American vocal miscellanies, well performed and recorded, that cover similar — one might even say, overlapping — repertoire, though one features a soprano, the other a mezzo. To begin with the Albany disc, mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Hart opens her program with Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Unlike most Pulitzer Prize-winning music, this work has become a classic in only twenty years. Argento himself is quoted in the notes as saying, “Not a week goes by that I do not receive a letter from a singer or a listener saying how moved they were by a performance of the “Virginia Woolf Diary.” This is its fourth recording, at least, although unfortunately it was never committed to disc by Janet Baker, who premiered it and for whom it was written in 1974. Not so much a “song cycle” as a group of interior monologues set tomusic, From the Diary… is a work of extraordinary freshness, sensitivity, intelligence, and originality, with a rarefied lyricism that weaves in and out of tonal focus throughspontaneous stylistic shifts that parallel the shifting levels of reference in the diary entries, from description and reminiscence to reflection and commentary. It is a work to which one returns eagerly, deriving ever-deepening pleasure and richness of meaning. The only comparable vocal music I can think of isVincent Persichetti’s Harmonium (1951), an hour-long cycle of twenty Wallace Stevens settings. (This masterpiece has been recorded only once, on a 2-LP set issued in 1979 by Arizona State University [see Fanfare 5:21).

I am familiar with two of the previous recordings of From the Diary…: I preferred Marta Schele’s on Proprius to Virginia Dupuy’s on Gasparo, but I prefer Mary Ann Hart’s to either of them. Hers is a tad smoother and more controlled than Schele’s; both have pleasant voices and offer intelligent musical readings, but the latter is afflicted by a slight hootiness. 

Mary Ann Hart has chosen to follow the Argento with a setting by Elliott Carter of a portion of Hart Crane’s Voyages. The music, dating from 1945, is serious and demanding, but not impenetrable, falling somewhere along the lines of the composer’s sonatas for piano and for cello, written at about the same time The-6-minute setting is not as immediately convincing as the Argento, but it encourages deeper acquaintance.

The three songs (selected seemingly at random from about a zillion) by Henry Cowell were composed at different times during his career, and share little in common other than mixing the odd and the conventional. They are quite uninteresting and contribute little to the program. William Flanagan wrote some nasty criticism, as well as music — mostly songs — before committing suicide in 1969, at the age of 46.  “Horror Movie” is oh-so-sophisticated and clever, while “Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” is a very sweet and pretty setting of a strangely gentle poem by Gertrude Stein. Richard Hundley is the one composer who appears on both these discs and I will comment on him later. The songs by Ricky Ian Gordon and Gary Schacker are in a much lighter — almost pop — vein. They are simple and cute and, at times, quite touching.

Mary Ann Hart is familiar to Fanfare readers through her work on Albany’s project to record the Ives songs; she also appears on the soundtrack of the Disney Beauty and the Beast and teaches on the Vassar faculty. She is consistently fine on this recording, as is her pianist, Dennis Helmrich.


Jennifer Poffenberger studied at the University of Indiana, where this recital was recorded. She has a light, pleasant soprano, which she  employs with intelligence, providing us with another rewarding recital. (However, a minor editing glitch — between the Hundley and Rorem groups — must be noted.)

Richard Hundley is a composer in his sixties who concentrated on vocal music. He studied with Virgil Thomson and William Flanagan, and his many songs have appeared regularly on recital programs for years, arid are now beginning to appear on recordings. Yet he is listed in neither The New Grove nor Baker’s. I am not sure how to explain this absence of recognition and documentation, but I suspect that it is attributable to a lack of academic affiliation combined with a concentration on what is often viewed as a peripheral genre. I wonder what Ned Rorem would have to say on the subject. It is worth a moment of reflection because the eight songs on this Enharmonic disc, the four on the Albany disc (none of which overlap), along with others I have chanced upon over the years, indicate a real talent. Listening to these songs, one is struck by their genuineness, their naturalness, and their spontaneous ease of expression, as well as their lack of pretension. Hundley has a light touch — there is nothing deep, disturbing, or problematical about these songs. But I can think of many more imposing figures who would be hard-pressed to come up with a song as appealing as “Come Ready and See Me,” for example.

Also worthy of attention are the Pilgrim Songs (1989) of Mark Louis Lehman. Like William Flanagan before him, Lehman (b. 1947) is active both as a critic — and an excellent one, at that — and as a composer. In addition to writing regularly for the American Record Guide, he is a member of the English faculty at the University of Cincinnati. Lehman wrote the poems as well as the music for this attractive cycle, whose seven songs form a series of impressions and reflections along a spiritual journey, set within an ancient world of the imagination. This framework gives the cycle a nicely shaped coherence. The poet-composer’s own program notes describe the concept unerringly, when he writes, “Both lyrics and music have a faintly archaic flavor,” and notes the music’s “modal, folksong-like style.” I can only enlarge on this by pointing to the simply-textured, generally two-voiced piano accompaniments, enlivened by melismatic arabesques, and featuring much use of perfect intervals. The cycle is balladic, rather than dramatic, with a generally even emotional tone, except for “In the Storm. It is all very pretty and appealing.

The group of five songs by Ned Rorem are among his earliest (1946-53) and most popular. They are also, I must admit, among my favorites, especially “Pippa’s Song,” which, once heard, is never forgotten

Then there are the odds and ends. The familiar waltz from The Medium is typically ingratiating. David Baker’s 1969 Song Cycle is notably less interesting than everything else on the disc and its presence can only be explained with reference to his eminence on the University of Indiana faculty. And Turing’s Poema en forma de canciones (1918) is pleasant enough for those tolerant of the limitations of Debussy-influenced Iberiana. But, like, hey — what do they have to do with a CD featuring mid-20th-century American music? The “mostly” in the title isn’t an adequate excuse.

This leads to my only real criticism — it is relatively minor, but it applies to both discs, which otherwise offer a fair share of pleasant listening. Neither program has any real conceptual coherence: the music varies so much and so disparately with regard to quality, style, weight, and tone that the result in each case is really a grab-bag, rather than a recital. Not that all the music on a recital should sound the same, but variety can be planned and balanced in such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, so to speak. But, as 1 said, this is a minor matter. Otherwise, the performances are excellent, as is most of the music.