Time and Memory [26:43]
Battle Songs [16:26]
Impossible Season [21:04]
James Reese (tenor): Matt Sullivan (baritone): Molly Young (soprano)
Hasiao-Ying Lin (piano): Ta Wei Tsai (piano: Impossible Season)
rec. 2015/16, Miriam A Friedberg Concert Hall, The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, USA
ALBANY TROY1683 [64:13]
American composer Michael Rickelton is represented in this disc by three song cycles. The composer, a performer and educator too – he studied composition with Jerome Reed in Nashville, Tennessee - also sings, though not here, something that clearly informs his cycles.
Time and Memory sets poems by the Pennsylvanian poet William S Trout (1909-80). What’s immediately clear is the piano’s fine narrative role – it’s never used as an adjunct in exploring the texts but is rightly employed as an active agent. The vocal line is extremely attractive and thoughtfully shaped. It can reflect the lull but also the exuberance of Trout’s lines and fortunately Rickelton is fully prepared to be gritty when necessary; the third setting, Intermezzo (reflection on March) – one of two piano solos in the cycle – is defiantly terse fully reflecting the unset texts (but necessarily affording the piano its own narrative). The following poem, September Noon, is nostalgic and restful whilst the second piano Intermezzo offers a study in contrasts, in its exploration of the natural world of chirping crickets.
The four Battle Songs draw on Emerson, Melville, McCrae (In Flanders Fields) and Theodore O’Hara. Rickelton vests Emerson’s Concord with a positively Mussorgskian piano contribution in places and catches the drum tattoos of O’Hara’s Buena Vista, full of rhythmic agitation and funeral fusillades. There are moments in the setting of Melville’s Shiloh when I was put in mind, in a few places, of Gerald Finzi’s setting of Fear No More though Rickelton draws off in other directions, with sensitive piano harmonies rather like a Gurney postlude.
He draws on the poetry of the contemporary writer Dana Gioia in the final set, Impossible Season. There’s a particularly beautiful setting of his poem Parts of Summer Weather, fragrant harmonies and a nostalgia not dissimilar to that evoked in September Noon from the first cycle. Perhaps overall this cycle is less immediately distinctive than its two companions, but it does amplify Rickelton’s success in landscape and seasonal settings rather as Battle Songs showed his capacity to encompass more combative elements.
As regards recording quality, the piano is too far forward in the first setting, Time and Memory, covering the vocal line too often and sometimes obscuring the poetry. Things improve elsewhere. It’s also the case that tenor James Reese, sensitive though he is to the lyric potential of the lines, is occasionally pushed uncomfortably. Soprano Molly Young has a rather fragile voice, but she puts this vulnerability to good use in her singing even if some areas of her vocal production remain a little bleached of colour. The best singer is baritone Matt Sullivan, strong and confident. Pianists Hasiao-Ying Lin and Ta Wei Tsai are the glue that holds the programme together. I suspect it’s microphone placement and not over-assertive pianism that skews the opening cycle.
If you enjoy the songs of Barber, Copland, Britten or Bolcom you may find some echoes here in Rickelton’s thoughtful settings.