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Milton BABBITT (1916-2011)
Philomel (1964) [18:57]
Michael HERSCH (b. 1971)
a breath upwards (2014) [32:01]
Ah Young Hong (soprano)
Miranda Cuckson (viola)
Cleb Kanasevich (clarinet)
Jamie Hersch (horn)
rec. 2017, Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University, Baltimore
INNOVA 986 [50:58]

Philomel is something of a classic of electronic music. It combines very early use of synthesizer sounds with both live and recorded soprano voice. The music is serial and defiantly atonal, but this idiom combines with the space-age sounds of the time to create a kind of golden confluence of authenticity, and in my opinion its position in today’s canon of musical repertoire is as valid as – for instance – a cantata by Bach.

The piece uses a text by John Hollander, the subject being Ovid’s myth of Philomela. This is a terrible tale filled with gruesome happenings, with a final apotheosis in which Philomena escapes from King Tereus through the intervention of the gods, who transform her into a nightingale. Hollander’s complex libretto is printed in the booklet.

A brief search online shows few available recordings beyond its original and now highly collectable LP release with soprano Bethany Beardslee. There is an alternative to this innova recording on the New World label from 1995 which is also very good, though the balance is closer and more studio-like. I prefer the innova recording as it balances the solo singer and tape more closely and in a better concert-hall perspective. The original tape part is quadrophonic, but the stereo mix for this recording has been expertly produced, and certainly highly convincing over headphones and speakers alike.

Michael Hersch’s a breath upwards shares themes of dark forests and perilous journeys with Philomel. The work takes its texts from Dante’s Purgatorio and Ezra Pound’s Cantos for a cycle of twelve settings that have a clear dramatic shape, starting with imagery from nature, haunting us with dark symbolism and confronting us with death. As the publicity text for this release promises, soprano Ah Young Hong’s “fervour, flawless accuracy and riveting tone convey the myriad shards and flavours of the music with apparent ease and assurance.” Her voice is again balanced as an equal amongst the other instruments, and Hersch’s unusual choice of instruments creates a sharply dramatic, highly dynamic but also transparent acoustic picture. There are moments of utter, moving simplicity, such as part 6, accompanied only by the two wind instruments, but there is always a strong feel of unease. With a lack of harmonic foundation that might have come from some kind of bass instrument we float in a world just above the plane of reality while dealing with shadows and other sinister things. This is atmospheric and compelling music but is by no means an easy listen.

Sharply etched and potently communicative, this is a recording that no fan of challenging modern vocal music should be without. Compactly presented but with excellent notes by Andrew Farach-Colton and detailed biographical annotation, you will find this production sticks around in the memory for longer than you might expect.

Dominy Clements


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