Saturday, March 28, 2020

Album Reviews: My Liederabend | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

You may notice I haven't posted in a few days. This week, I learned that online school is still a full-time job when you procrastinate as much as I do. Oh well.

But that doesn't mean I haven't been listening -- in fact, as assignments pile up, I've been listening more than ever!

A few nights ago, I had a particularly difficult and long-winded problem set. Long enough that I feel like I can put "reconstructing sounds of proto-Quechuan" on my resumé now. I found myself hankering for lieder, so I put on one album after another and next thing I knew, I had gone through four full albums.

I figured it prudent for my time (and yours) to do a mini-reviews post rather than four full-length posts. So here you go: a summary of my liederabend.


1. The Contrast: English Poetry in Song
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Quilter, and Huw Watkins. Released on BIS in February 2020.

I don't believe in God. But I do believe in Carolyn Sampson. And that's kind of the same thing.

I think there might have been a time when Carolyn Sampson was a strict early music specialist, but thankfully she's branched out. Of course, her Bach solo cantatas are still my favorite out there, but her musical sensibility applies so well to everything and anything, from heavily stylized French baroque to quirkier selections like these. I'm not going to try to find words to describe her voice, but let's just say this: I sent this album to a good friend and her reaction was (verbatim): "Who is this angel, and when can I see her live?" Joseph Middleton has that perfect touch of a pianist who specializes in lieder, never overshadowing the voice and always magnifying its drama. They are the unstoppable duo.



2. A Lesson in Love
Kate Royal, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Works by pretty much anyone you can think of. Released on Warner Classics in February 2011.

The program of this album is all over the place in the best possible way. Cabaret songs, Schumann and Brahms, folk music of America, Britain, Ireland, France, all in some of the best versions I've heard. Case in point: almost every soprano has recorded "Gretchen am Spinnrade" at some point, and Royal's rendition is easily in my top three (right up there with Carolyn Sampson). Her American music is better than most American singers -- two different takes of William Bolcom's jazz-twinged "Waitin'" give the varied program a distinct contour and a resounding cadence, and a short pastorale of Copland left me halfway to tears. Malcolm Martineau accompanies the simple British airs -- think "Danny Boy" and "O Waly, Waly" -- with just as much tender attention as the more conventionally difficult music on the program.



3. Art Songs
Fiora, soprano; Paul Hankinson, piano. Works by a lot of people, look for yourself you lazy bum. Self-released in 2002.

I'm pretty sure Fiora hasn't thought about this album in awhile. She's now a successful singer-songwriter with 600,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But before she hit her fame in that field, she released a single album of art songs -- she's a classically trained vocalist and composer. Honestly, I was really impressed. She's got this lovely syrup to her voice, fluid and unencumbered by excessive vibrato. Her program has a couple standouts, including the opening movement from Hindemith's "Das Marienleben" (a piece that makes me regret not being a soprano) and a beautiful original setting of "The Watcher" (couldn't figure out who the poet was).



4. The Divine Muse
Mary Bevan, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Haydn, Schubert, and Wolf. Released on Signum Classics in January 2020.

Haydn's vocal works never get the love they deserve. Recently, I've fallen in love with Arianna a Naxos, a virtuosic monodrama depicting the scene where Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Fiery, passionate, and vocally demanding, the music suits Mary Bevan's full voice perfectly, Ariadne's agony clear from her frenzied inflections. She cools significantly for selections from Wolf's vast vocal opus, the crunchy harmonies providing latticework for her calming melodic overlay. And of course, you can never go wrong with Schubert. Overall, a fabulous album -- though maybe not as fabulous as her recording of Holst's set of four songs for soprano and violin, one of my favorite pieces ever (I have a lot of favorite pieces ever).

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