Lenoriana: Music of Boyle, Altman, Hagen and Hennessy.
Benjamin C. Boyle: Lenoriana: "Annabel Lee," "Lenore," "To," "The Conqueror Worm," "Intermezzo," "El Dorado," "Lenore," "A Dream within a Dream," "To Helen." Laurie Altman: Two Songs from Mountain interval "A Time to Talk," "The Sound of Trees." Daron Aric Hagen: Larkin Songs: "1a. Going," "1b. Coming," "2. Interlude #1: Fiction and the Reading Public," "3a. Counting." "3b. 'None of the books have time'." "4a. 'Within the dream you said'." "4b. Talking in Bed." "5. Interlude #2: 'To write one song, you said'." "6a. 'Morning at last: there is now'." "6b. The White Palace." Martin Hennessy: Three Dickinson Songs: "My river runs to Thee," "Let down the bars, O Death!" "I taste a liquor never brewed."
This generous disk is yet another memorable collaboration between baritone Elem Eley and pianist J.J. Penna, faculty colleagues at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Their 2008 disk Drifts and Shadows was rapturously reviewed in this column (Journal of Singing 66, no. 2 [November/December 2009]) and elsewhere. This collection does not quite attain the same excellence but comes pretty close. It presents four world premiere recordings of new vocal works, with several of the songs specifically penned for Eley and Penna. These two remarkable musicians are responsible for a great many world premieres, which is a testament to the high esteem with which they are regarded as well as their unflagging devotion to the cause of new music.
The finest of the four song sets is the one for which the CD is named. Composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle may not be a familiar name to many NATS members because most of his work has been with instrumental music, but there is no question that he has an exceptional gift for vocal writing as well. Lenoriana is a rather intricately constructed cycle of eight songs (plus a piano interlude) based on the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, composed over the course of four years. Poe's "Lenore" is the emotional anchor of the work, and Boyle makes the intriguing choice to split the poem in two halves to create the second and seventh songs of the cycle. This is a highly atmospheric work, very much in keeping with Poe's poetry and its recurrent themes of longing and loss, and Boyle's responsiveness to these potent texts is unfailingly effective. The cycle begins with "Annabel Lee," arguably one of the finest poems ever written, and Boyle flawlessly captures its haunting, timeless quality. And after the ferocious passion of some of the inner songs of the cycle, we are left in the sublime presence of Helen of Troy in perhaps the most exquisite song on the disk. Boyle's musical palette is largely neoromantic in its flavor, which suits both these texts and Eley and Penna's gifts very well indeed. The only complaint around this cycle is that the texts printed in the liner notes do not perfectly align with the texts that Eley actually sings. In some cases, we are talking about single words that are altered (such as "floats" for "glides" or "wretches" for "false friends"), while in other instances whole phrases are shuffled out of order or missing altogether. Liner notes include a very interesting essay by Boyle about this cycle; one wishes that it might have addressed the matter of these puzzling textual anomalies.
Lenoriana is a highly accessible cycle and beautifully written for the voice. It is a bit jarring to proceed from there to Two Songs from Mountain Interval by Laurie Altman with texts by Robert Frost, which are not nearly so hospitable. "A Time to Talk" is actually a disarmingly simple poem about interrupting one's work in the field to speak with a visiting friend, and if one first reads the text it is easy to imagine it being set to gentle music reminiscent of Copland's Appalachian Spring. Altman opts instead for a highly angular and urgent sounding setting that is rife with slashing dissonance. Is this meant as a commentary of sorts, probing beneath the poem's idyllic surface? It's a bold choice, and Eley and Penna are to be commended for how well they contend with its difficulties. "The Sound of Trees" has a peculiar beauty all its own as it languidly unfolds, but it's almost as difficult for the singer as the song that preceded it. Once again, Altman has crafted a turbulent melodic line that is often at odds with the natural cadence of the text. This is the kind of song that raises all kinds of questions, which is very likely what the composer had in mind.
Daron Aric Hagen's Larkin Songs is a scarcely less challenging work, musically speaking. The texts are by the late British poet Philip Larkin, a gifted yet controversial figure who wrote in a disarmingly direct and spare style. "This cycle works very hard to be as simple as possible," Hagen writes in the liner notes, but beyond the wide open textures, very little about these songs is simple for the singer, pianist, or listener. Compounding the challenge of fully understanding and appreciating these songs is that the texts are not printed in the liner notes; one assumes that copyright difficulties may be the reason. In any case, the omission is a terrible shame. Hagen has created strikingly original sonorities here, and Eley and Penna perform these songs beautifully.
The disk ends in highly satisfying fashion with Three Dickinson Songs by Martin Hennessy, who was one of the composers featured on the aforementioned Drifts and Shadows. The three songs are strikingly divergent, a perfect reminder of Emily Dickinson's limitless inflections delivered with a single voice. The last of the three songs, a rollicking drinking song, was penned specifically for Eley and Penna, and it serves as an ideal exclamation point at the very end of this impressive disk.
Elem Eley's voice is not quite what it was in his previous recordings. Time has taken its toll in terms of tonal steadiness or flexibility and flow between registers. But the essential tone remains exceptionally handsome and his artistry is as eloquent as ever. It's not so much a matter of a loss of beauty as it is an exchange of one kind of beauty for another. J.J. Penna remains an absolute marvel at the piano, and even the most difficult of these songs seem to pose no serious problems for him. What is most impressive of all is the flawless sense of ensemble between these two musicians as they confront the plethora of challenges posed by these works. No matter how difficult the song at hand may be, they remain undaunted.
As previously mentioned, the Larkin texts are missing from the liner notes; all of the other poems are included, albeit with small inconsistencies. There are biographies of the two artists and brief essays by the composers about each of the four works. The recorded sound is clear and true.