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Mortality Mansions: Songs of Love and Loss after 60.

Mortality Mansions: Songs of Love and Loss after 60. Michael Slattery, tenor; Marnie Breckenridge, soprano; Dimitri Dover, piano; Donald Hall, reader. (Delos DE 3548; 56:48)

Herschel Garfein/Donald Hall: Morality Mansions: "When the Young Husband," "When I was Young," "Woolworth's," "The Green Shelf," "Fete," "The Young Watch Us," "Summer Kitchen," "Dying is Simple, She Said," "Deathwork," "Freezes and Junes," "Gold." Herschel Garfein/Jane Kenyon: "Otherwise."

On June 23, 2018, the United States lost one of its most important and admired writers, Donald Hall. He wrote with tremendous distinction over the course of more than sixty years, earning great acclaim as poet, essayist, critic, editor, and educator. He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006, an honor that almost all experts agree was ridiculously overdue. He authored more than fifty books, nearly half of which were volumes of poetry. Among his most noteworthy books was Writing Well, a highly regarded guide for anyone wanting to write more effectively. His writing had a plainspoken clarity and directness that made it completely accessible and approachable in a way that not all great writing is. His work was intensely personal and emotionally open, yet never cloying. And while much of what he wrote was affirming and positive in its outlook, he was not afraid to take himself and the reader into the realm of deep pain and loss.

Both the central joy and central sorrow of Hall's life sprang from his marriage to Ruth Kenyon, a superb poet in her own right who had actually been his student at one time. From the moment they were wed in 1972, the two of them enjoyed the kind of rich relationship about which most people only can dream. She was almost twenty years his junior, so Hall always believed that she would almost certainly outlive him. Tragically, Kenyon succumbed to leukemia in 1995, and almost all of Hall's writing from that point on was a reflection of this shattering heartbreak. "To grow old is to lose everything," the poet wrote in his poem "Affirmation," and one can understand the undeniable truth behind those words and why he was moved to write them. And yet, Hall managed to prove those words wrong in the way that he lived out the last 23 years of his life with dogged determination and grace, retaining his remarkable communicative powers to the very end.

Herschel Garfein's song cycle Mortality Mansions, a setting of eleven of Hall's poems about love and loss, serves as a stirring final testament to Hall's work and to the almost limitless possibilities that can spring from the imaginative collaboration between poet and composer. Garfein happens to be one of our country's most accomplished lyricists and librettists, so he understands the unique relationship between words and music better than most. He chose these eleven poems out of Hall's vast legacy and managed to create what Hall himself called "a kind of wholeness all its own." The subtitle of the disk is "Songs of Love and Loss after 60," and those words might lead one to expect an unremitting slog through grief and despair. In fact, this cycle boasts a remarkable span of styles and colors, with plenty of vibrancy at the outset that does eventually give way to the inevitable depletion that is always a part of growing old. In this respect, this cycle bears some resemblance to Schubert's Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise, two cycles that have nothing to do with old age but which each explores in its own way what it is like to live with the deepest sort of disappointment and heartache that life can bring us. It is not that that this song cycle is the equal of those towering masterworks, but it comes as close as any song cycle written in the last several decades. In short, Mortality Mansions is one of the most deeply moving and impressive vocal works of the twenty-first century.

One way to understand the expressive and thematic breadth of this cycle is to read the entire paragraph from which the cycle's title is drawn:
Let us pull back the blanket, slide
off our bluejeans,
assume familiar positions,
and celebrate lust in Mortality

Several of the poems are similarly unguarded in their exploration of sexual themes, and it is around these particular texts that Garfein has crafted his most energetic and passionate music of the cycle. This not only allows for more musical variety in the cycle as a whole, but also helps make the themes of loss and bereavement more acutely moving as they begin to enter the picture. By the time we reach the eleventh and final song, "Gold," we have been taken on a wrenching yet illuminating journey that cannot easily be forgotten.

One might reasonably expect a song cycle centered on life after the age of 60 to be performed by a singer of comparable age, personally acquainted with the encroachment of old age. Instead, these songs have been entrusted to Michael Slattery, a young, vibrant tenor whose voice is fresh, pure, tireless, and lovely in every way, and who sings with unfailing grace and musicality. It might seem like an unconventional choice, but perhaps it was to make the point that the hopes and desires that all of us share as human beings have nothing to do with being young or old. At any rate, his singing is utterly superb, and one cannot imagine these songs being better sung. Dimitri Dover is kept very busy at the piano, contending with the considerable challenges of these complex songs. He is everything one could want in a collaborative artist. What is most remarkable, however, is the flawless sense of rapport between singer and pianist that seals the emotional impact of this performance.

Immediately upon the conclusion of the song cycle, the listener is treated to the same eleven poems as read by Donald Hall himself in what are almost certainly the last audio recordings of his voice. The voice itself bears the craggy scars of a very long life, and the actual readings themselves reveal the depth of understanding that only the author of the words could possibly have. It is nothing short of mesmerizing to hear these recitations, particularly in the wake of the poet's recent death. As a musical backdrop, one will hear the special piano-only arrangements that Garfein made of each song, timed to fit the span of each reading as Hall had recorded them. It is revelatory to experience these songs in this way with the most essential musical material played without the singer; one comes away with an even deeper appreciation for Garfein's meticulously crafted score.

Following the poetic readings is a final treasure that offers up perhaps the single most moving moment in the entire release. It is an epilogue that consists of Garfein's setting of "Otherwise," a powerful poem by Hall's wife, Jane Kenyon, in which she recounts all of the small pleasures that are part of an ordinary day. Punctuating the list is the recurrent refrain "it might have been otherwise." At the end of the poem, as she makes reference to planning the next day, she says "but one day, I know, it will be otherwise." It is hard to imagine a more touching reflection on the fragility of life and its blessings and the importance of cherishing what we have while we have it. Garfein's setting of this poem is perfect in its heartfelt simplicity and honesty, and soprano Marnie Breckenridge sings it beautifully. It is a way for Hall's beloved life partner, the direct inspiration for all of the poems that came before it, to have a more tangible presence in this recording. It is a brilliant choice.

Liner notes include a detailed and insightful essay by David Hajdu, biographies of all of the participants, complete texts, and gorgeous photographs. Delos is to be commended for sparing no expense in giving this recording the kind of beautiful frame that it deserves. This is a recording that belongs on the shelf of anybody who cares about great poetry, great music, and the miracle that occurs when they are combined this masterfully.
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Author:Berg, Gregory
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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