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La Mer Ticciati
Cantatas for Soprano
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Dominick ARGENTO (b. 1927) The Andrée Expedition (1982) [43:22] From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1974) [36:22]
Brian Mulligan (baritone)
Timothy Long (piano)
rec. 2016, Abeshouse Productions, Pelham, New York
No texts enclosed NAXOS8.559828 [79:44]
Towards the end of the 19th century several Nordic explorers made important discoveries through expeditions in the Arctic area and in Central Asia. Adolf Fredrik Nordenskiöld (1832 – 1901), born in Finland but from 1860 Swedish citizen, led several expeditions to Spitsbergen in the 1860s and 70s, and in 1878 – 1879 he successfully with his ship Vega found the North East Passage north of Siberia and through Bering Strait. In 1893 – 1896 Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen (1861 – 1930) carried through his polar expedition on board Fram and returned in 1896, at about the same time as Salomon Andrée was preparing his balloon flight to the North Pole. Due to bad winds he had to give up that year. In the same period (1893 – 1897), Swedish Sven Hedin (1865 – 1952) was on his first large-scale expedition in Central Asia, including Tibet and earned a lot of attention worldwide. Andrée (1854 – 1897) made a new attempt the next year together with Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg from Spitsbergen. They took off on 11 July but shortly afterwards they lost the ropes that were intended to make it possible to manoeuvre the balloon. The last message from them was delivered two days after take-off by a carrier pigeon. The world had to wait for 33 years, until a Norwegian research ship in August 1930 found their last camp in White Island. The three gentlemen’s remains and their equipment could be brought back and there were diaries and other notes that in detail described their hardships and disappointments during the three months that followed there balloon flight, which lasted only 65 hours. Most sensational of all was that among their belongings was also photographic films that were possible to develop and thus the documentation became very detailed. A lot has been written about their tragic fate. In 1967, seventy years after the expedition, Per-Olof Sundman, author and member of the Swedish parliament, wrote a documentary novel, based on the diaries, Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd, and in the early 1980s a movie, based on the novel, was issued, directed by Jan Troell and with Max von Sydow in the title role. Dominick Argento’s song cycle was composed at about the same time as a commission from the Schubert Club. It was written with a specific singer in mind, Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård, and Argento describes in the liner notes about his qualms which of two basic ideas for the cycle to choose, but in the end Hagegård’s nationality tipped the balance.
Dominick Argento has chosen excerpts from Andrée’s journals and Strindberg’s letters to Anna. Fraenkel didn’t write a diary, only technical data, so when Fraenkel is ‘quoted’ it is Argento’s invention where he sometimes borrowed material from Andrée and Strindberg’s notes. It is a long cycle, almost three quarters of an hour, and it is charged with emotions – in particular Nils Strindberg’s letters. Anna’s Birthday is very beautiful and inward. Argento’s musical language is accessible and he knows the human voice and its abilities and limitations. I very well remember performances of his opera The Aspern Papers, which was played in Stockholm more than 25 years ago, and The Andrée Expedition, though structurally very different, is similarly communicative. There is one musical quotation – and a very obvious one – in the song The King’s Jubilee, where we hear the Swedish National Anthem Du gamla du fria, which however never has been officially declared National Anthem, but had been in use since it was first printed in 1845.
The other cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, is older, composed in 1974, and here the performer lends his voice to one person, the author herself, in eight excerpts from her diary, covering more than twenty years and the last song is also titled Last Entry. Argento received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for the cycle in 1975, which is a quality guarantee, and I greatly appreciated this cycle as well: intense, dramatic but also inward and soft. The final song is heart-rending. I only wish the texts had been enclosed for deeper appreciation of details, nuances… It is worth mentioning that this was also a commission from the Schubert Club and from the beginning the singer was to be Jessye Norman and Argento chose excerpt from Sappho. But Ms Norman cancelled and was replaced by Beverly Sills, for whom Argento instead contemplated a gallery of Shakespeare heroines. Sills also cancelled and in came British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker. Neither Sappho nor the Shakespearean ladies were suitable for her and then it was Virginia Woolf. And Baker must have been great in these songs. Nominally a female voice should be preferable for diary texts by a female author, but on the other hand this is not a stage work, and a song cycle is something close to a recital of poetry. We do accept women reciting poetry by male writers just as we nowadays accept women singing Die schöne Müllerin or Dichterliebe, so why shouldn’t we accept a baritone singing female texts? And Brian Mulligan is very good – in both cycles. He has the required power but even more important the sensitivity to convey the inward intimacy, where the spoken words are not expressive enough.
Dominick Argento is on the back cover of the jewel-case quoted, saying: “For me, all music begins where speech stops.” What you can’t express in words alone, is sometimes possible to embrace in music. That’s what he has done here.