The cover of Mimmi Fulmer's wonderful new recording is emblazoned with a photograph of a windmill against a vibrant blue sky. It bespeaks the refreshing spaciousness of these songs, most of which feature solo voice accompanied by a single flute. Piano figures here and there, and the last song combines voice with flute and clarinet, but even the songs with more layered accompaniment still suggest wide open spaces. But anyone who lives in rural America knows that such places are almost never as uncomplicated as they might appear to be, and idyllic looking locales can harbor more than their share of sorrow and bitterness. Likewise, the songs that comprise this collection may employ relatively modest musical forces, but they convey a multitude of emotions, from ecstasy to anguish, as well as a wider swath of musical styles than one might think possible. In certain songs the flute is used reassuringly as though it were a second voice, while in others it offers a much more rhapsodic and dramatic presence. Likewise, the vocal line is comfortably lyric in some songs and wildly instrumental in others. So what might appear to be a sharply limited palette of colors in fact yields limitless expressive possibilities.
Despite the veritable blizzard of challenges that they pose, these songs are performed with consummate skill and artistry. Mimmi Fulmer's voice is both warm and sparkling, and her technique enables her to sing even the most intricate of these songs with assured ease. Impressive as well is her musicality, whether in the more sedate pieces or in those that are far more daring and daunting. Above all, we sense her abiding intelligence in every moment. Flutist Leone Buyse seems scarcely to break a sweat as she dispatches each technical challenge that these songs pose, but one especially appreciates the care with which she plays her simplest passages. Not a single measure of music sounds perfunctory. When the musical texture is as spare as this, any imperfection in ensemble would be all too apparent, so the powerful persuasiveness of this recording hinges on the remarkable precision and sensitivity of these performances. Fulmer and Buyse are extraordinary partners for each other, and it is the strength of their collaboration that yields this disk's richest rewards.
Tremendous care has been taken with the details, right down to the order in which these seventeen songs flow from one to another. The friendly folksong settings of John Corigliano, with their familiar yet haunting beauty, are an inviting way to open the disk.
Things become much more musically daring therafter, but the journey never feels chaotic or jarring. Among the most impressive highlights is "Patterns" by Scott Gendel, a setting of a sprawling and complex poem by Amy Lowell, in which a woman struggles to come to terms with the heartbreaking news that the man to whom she is betrothed has been killed in battle. The music's spare texture somehow heightens its visceral impact, as though nothing stands between us and the grieving woman at the heart of this vignette. Another striking moment occurs at the opening of "What are Years?" by Braxton Blake, in which the voice and flute move in divergent countermelodies that are nevertheless in perfect rhythmic sync. The effect is mesmerizing, as though both singer and flutist are deeply reflecting on the same challenging questions. Each has a solo moment in the spotlight, both of which are worth a mention. Ms. Fulmer's comes with Kenneth Gaburo's "Cantilena One," which is a setting of Rabindranath Tagore's "Whence do you bring this Disquiet, my Love?" Gaburo's restless melodic line perfectly embodies the uneasy longing of this passionate text. Kurt Stallmann's "Lumina II" is Ms. Buyse's solo showpiece, and its atmospheric magic serves as an ideal introduction for the Maura Bosch songs that follow it. Aaron Copland's "As It Fell Upon a Day," with the simple addition of clarinet to the mix and the composer's bracing directness, is a fully satisfying conclusion to this collection.
These lovely performances deserve the fine frame within which they are presented, with biographic notes on each composer and revelatory notes on each work. Texts are included, but one should note that they are listed by the titles of the poems, which in several cases are different from the titles of their corresponding songs. Such is the case with one of the most moving songs on the disk, Henry Cowell's "I Heard in the Night." The text is a Padraic Colum poem titled "No Child" in which a woman is saddened by the sound of pigeons in a nearby nest, because it reminds her of the pain of her own childlessness. One cannot imagine this poem being more effectively put to music than in this stark setting.
The recordings were made over the course of six years and in several different locales, which underscores how much this fine recording must have been a labor of love.
Gregory Berg is an Assistant Professor of Music at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisonsin, where he teaches private voice. He is Fine Arts Director for local public radio station WGTD FM 91.1, for which he hosts a daily classical music program, "The Music Potpourri," and a daily interview program called "The Morning Show." A church organist since the age of eight, he serves Holy Communion Lutheran Church as Minister of Music. He graduated from Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) in 1982 and earned his master's degree in vocal performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. During his undergraduate and graduate years, he earned four first-place finishes in state and regional MATS competitions; he also won first place in the District Metropolitan Opera Auditions and was an apprentice with the prestigious Lyric Opera Center for American Artists in Chicago. Since moving to southeastern Wisconsin, Berg has been an active soloist with area orchestras and wind ensembles. He is also a composer of church music with two contemporary liturgies and three commissioned hymns to his credit.