Richard DANIELPOUR (b. 1956) Songs of Solitude (2002) [28:40] War Songs (2008) [23:37] Toward the Splendid City (1992) [8:32]
Thomas Hampson (baritone) Anthony LaMarchina (cello obbligato)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. live, Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center,
Nashville, USA, 12-14 March 2015, 21 November 2015 (Splendid City)
Sung texts enclosed
Premiere recordings (songs) NAXOS 8.559792 [60:48]
Like many of his American composer colleagues Richard Danielpour shunned the serial technique he had espoused at the beginning of his career. The music on the present disc is basically tonal but spiced with seasoning from various sources: some Stravinsky, a drop of Copland, a sprinkle of Bernstein and various influences from latter-day jazz and popular music. The Beatles have been an inspiration, he says somewhere.
The Drinking Song (tr. 3) from Songs of Solitude is jazzy and rhythmically alert. This cycle was written in response to the events of 9/11 and it draws on poems by Nobel Prize winner W. B. Yeats. The day before 11 September 2001 Danielpour had arrived at the Copland House in Peekskill, N.Y., since 1998 a retreat for composers. His aim was to edit his recently finished Requiem and write a new work for Thomas Hampson and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Having finished the edit, which took around a week, he returned to the poems of Yeats which he had brought with him as suitable for the Hampson cycle. He soon realized that many of the poems included images of war and decided that after the Requiem, which in a way anticipated the deaths at World Trade Center, he would write another work related to the horrible events of 9/11. “The plainness of the Copland House inspired a new sense of economy and sparseness in my own composition, as did Yeats’ poetry”, he writes in the liner-notes.
Hampson was very helpful with a lot of issues concerning Songs of Solitude, including the ordering of the poems. Work proceeded quickly and the score was finished in January 2002. Interestingly this was the last work he completed before setting to work on his opera Margaret Garner to a libretto by another Nobel Prize Winner, Toni Morrison. Thomas Hampson premiered Songs of Solitude in Philadelphia on 22 October 2004 and again sang them in March 2015 in Nashville, where this recording was made. The sparseness Danielpour mentions is obvious but this doesn’t exclude intensity. The musical language is accessible even for those who fight shy of “modern music”. Danielpour has caught the essence of Yeats’ poems and Hampson’s handling of the words brings an icy coldness. The Second Coming (tr. 5), frightening in its helplessness, seems to illustrate the chaos and despair after the first plane crashed into the North Tower. It is terribly shocking. The uncertainty of the epilogue is deeply emotional – and sorrowfully beautiful with its long trumpet solo. A lone trumpeter is the epitome of solitude – and in the end we have only ourselves to rely on. My thoughts when writing this also go to Aleppo where 100,000 civilians are cornered and their enemies come closer.
War is also omnipresent in War Songs from some years later. Danielpour received a commission from Hampson for a set of songs for baritone and piano for which the composer chose seven of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems, from the section of Leaves of Grass entitled “Drum Taps”. At the same time he worked on a piece for baritone, viola and piano, also on a Whitman text: Come Up From the Fields Father. Danielpour then had the idea to orchestrate four of the voice-and piano-songs and combine them with Come Up From the Fields Father, this time with a cello obbligato. The full cycle of War Songs was premiered and recorded in March 2015 by the forces we hear on this disc.
We hear the war from the beginning with an evocation of marching soldiers. It is beautifully orchestrated, as is the entire cycle. The second movement is a slow melody in 3/4 time, short but beautiful. The following two movements are just as beautiful. They are followed by Come Up From the Fields Father, which is almost as long as the previous four movements together. The opening cello solo, ravishingly played by Anthony LaMarchina, is a thing of great beauty that has haunted me for days after I first heard it. There are sounds of war but the overriding feeling is of harmony. These two cycles are in attitude the very opposite of each other, but the common denominator is war.
Another common denominator is Thomas Hampson. His amazing versatility is well known and here we can marvel anew at the expressivity and the beauty of his voice. At sixty there are some signs of ageing. A slight wobble on sustained notes can be noticed, in particular in These are the Clouds, but in the face of all his accomplishments this is a small price to pay. Just as in the recent Le nozze di Figaro, recorded only some months later, it is Hampson's verbal acuity and understanding of the music that leaves the deepest impact.
The concluding orchestral piece Toward the Splendid City is a much earlier work. It is a mirror of his love-hate relationship with New York, his hometown. It is interesting to learn that most of it was composed in other places and, to be honest, it is the positive feelings that dominate. This is lively, rhythmically enticing music – and highly entertaining.
Much of the background information for this review I have culled from Richard Danielpour’s excellent liner-notes. It is a great help to have the poems printed in the booklet – essential in fact – and I have nothing but praise for the performances and the recording.
The two song cycles are each other’s opposites and Toward the Splendid City is a contrast to both cycles. With the shadows of war obscuring our world this disc should be compulsory listening for all of us who bother about the present – and the future.