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Men’s Songs, Women’s Voices
Georgine Resick (soprano)
Warren Jones (piano)
rec. 1997, Purchase College Conservatory of Music, Purchase, New York
Included English sung texts; translations (but not originals) of songs in other languages. BRIDGE 9152 [70:08]
This delightful and intriguing album was released as long ago as 2004; it does not seem to have been reviewed on this site; and it remains available through specialist dealers. The programme is a beautiful mix of styles and composers. Though a formula of a kind was adopted in the planning of the programme – all the songs were written by male composers, but are settings of texts written by women – concerns with quality and variety have resulted in what is far more than a merely ‘formulaic’ anthology of songs.
The musicianship of both Georgine Resick and Warren Jones will surely give pleasure to most readers. The inclusion of a number of songs one rarely has the opportunity to hear is, as far as I am concerned, another plus. For me, a further fascination was the chance to encounter the work of some little-known poets. I have chosen to use these (more or less) neglected poets as my path through the disc. All of them, it has to be said, are minor poets but I do not use ‘minor’ as a term of disparagement. This merely indicates that they are poets with a narrow range of subject and form, and that they are neither innovators nor especially influential poets. There have, of course, been very great women poets – such as Sappho, Vittoria Colonna, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Anna Akhmatova and Forough Farrokhzhad. Though I have been reading, teaching and writing about poetry for more than half a century, I can claim a familiarity (albeit of a limited kind) with only 2 of the 10 poets represented on this disc.
The disc begins with John Harbison’s settings of six poems by the sixteenth-century Indian poet Mirabai, in translations by the contemporary American poet Robert Bly (b. 1926). Some time ago I read Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2004) by Mirabai, translated by Bly and Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953). Mirabai was a holy poet, a bhaketi, in Hindi. She was absolute in her devotion to Krishna, and her love took an extreme form, ecstatic and mystical. She wrote and sang (she became a poet of the streets) of how such love ennobled the human soul. Though such a phenomenon was not, of course, exclusively female, her poems often related it, through their imagery, to specifically female situations, such as being a young bride or being separated from a beloved husband. She often addresses the beloved as “the Dark One”(in Bly’s translations). To quote a few lines, from ‘All I Was Doing was Breathing’: “Something has reached out / And taken in the beams of my eyes. / There is a longing; / It is for his body /… / All I was doing was being / And the Dancing Energy came by my house”.
The other poet who was not new to me could hardly be more different. The American Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978) wrote children’s books – many with sweetly whimsical titles, such as The Horse Who Lived Upstairs or The Year Without a SantaClaus – and light verse, most of it (very) gently satirical. The smugness of her attitudes is often irritating, as in the set of three poems set here by Richard Wilson, Three Painters. I quote the last of the three entire:
Jackson Pollock had quaint way of saying to his sibyl
Shall I dribble should I paint
And with never a quibble
Sibyl always answered dribble.
The three poems appeared in McGinley’s volume of selected poems, Times Three. On its first appearance in 1961, it won her (astonishingly!) the Pulitzer Prize.
McGinley’s responses to the painting of Marc Chagall are willfully obtuse, and of the ‘folk artist’, the so-called Grandma Moses she says only “In pictures by Grandma Moses / The people have no noses”. I find it puzzling that any composer should have bothered to set these poems. Listen to Richard Wilson’s Eclogue (for solo piano) or to his String Quartet No. 3, and it becomes even more puzzling that a composer of obvious ability and sophistication should have chosen to set such trivial verse. Wilson’s setting of ‘Marc Chagall’ does seem to mock McGinley’s words and that of ‘Jackson Pollock’, though nicely ‘pointed’ sees, perhaps, more humour than McGinley intended? The seriousness of Wilson’s setting of ‘Grandma Moses’ is, I hope, ironic. The performances by Resnick and Jones resist the temptation to guy the pieces; I wonder if they might not have been better still for a little more exaggeration of manner?
In a few other cases the poets have a degree of familiarity which they actually owe to the songs recorded here. Though not all admirers of Schubert’s songs will have noticed the poet’s name, most will surely know ‘Heimliches Lieben’. The author of this text was Karoline Luise von Klenke (1750-1802), though for a long time the text of this song (which Schubert improves with a lovely melody) was attributed to Karl Gottfried von Leitner (1800-1890). It was only in the 1870s that the real identity of the poet was established; Klenke’s mother had been a more famous and well-connected poet, Anna Luise Karschin (1722-1791), whose acquaintances included Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Lessing. (One male poet, Johann Gleim called Karschin “the German Sappho”.) Klenke’s poem seems to have been sent to Schubert by the historian Julius Schneller (1777-1833). When sending it, Schneller felt free, as men often did when dealing with poems by women, to amend Klenke’s text: he removed the first word of her poem “Myrtill” – the poem was originally entitled An Myrtill – and replaced it by “O du”. Schubert clearly realised that Klenke’s poem was vers de société, rather than great poetry, and treated it accordingly. But he also recognized the poem’s elegance. His setting gives it an additional grace; it starts quietly and softly (fittingly enough given the ‘secrecy’ (‘Heimliches’) referred to in the altered title Schneller gave to the poem): soon, however, the excitement of love prompts some varied dynamics and the beautiful vocal line explores some unexpected intervals. Georgine Resick’s interpretation, sensitive and intelligent, makes everything seem both natural and refined. While this version by Resick and Jones may not be the finest ever recording of the song, it is thoroughly assured and pleasing.
Another poet whose name may be familiar, particularly to admirers of Fauré’s songs, is Renée de Beaumont de Brimont (1880-1943), née Renée Bonnin de La Bonninière de Beaumont. Four of her poems, ‘Cygne sur l’eau’, ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, ‘Jardin Nocturne’ and ‘Danseuse’ were set by Fauré as his song cycle Mirages, premiered in 1919. Mirages was also the title of Brimont’s collection of poems from which Fauré selected his texts (see Graham Johnson, Fauré’s Songs and their Poets, 2009). Some of her poems were also set by another French composer, Raymond Loucheur (1899-1979). She was, while admittedly a minor figure, an accomplished poet, as is evident from the first stanza of her ‘Cygne sur l’eau’:
Ma pensée est un cygne harmonieux et sage
qui glisse lentement aux rivages d’ennui
sur les ondes sans fond du rêve, du mirage,
de l’echo, du brouillard, de l’ombre, de la nuit.
To clarify my note at the head of this review, the documentation in this disc contains the sung texts of the English poems set: those for the songs by John Harbison and Richard Wilson. For all the other songs, English translations are here, but not the original texts in German or French. Most of these can be found online without much difficulty. Resick and Jones’s reading of ‘Cygne sur l’eau’ has a languid, pensively unhurried quality. For some tastes (but not mine), Resick’s voice may be a little full for late Fauré; but, as everywhere else on the disc, her musical intelligence is very evident and she sustains some beautiful long phrases. Warren Jones’s accompaniment is perfectly judged.
One of the two songs by Massenet, ‘Plus vite’, sets a text by an intriguing
figure, Hélene Vacaresco (1864-1947). Born in Bucharest, she was the
granddaughter of the Romanian poet Iancu Văcărescu (1786–1863); apart from her
literary career she had a tragic love affair, and also represented Romania at
the League of Nations. As a member of a distinguished aristocratic family, she
studied both French and English in her youth. She went on to study French
literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne. She spent much of her life in Paris
where she met, amongst others, Victor Hugo, Anatole France and Sully
Prudhomme. She is somewhat neglected nowadays. I have found it quite difficult
to track down texts of most of her poems, though that of ‘Plus Vite’ can
readily be found
online. The booklet for this CD includes an attractive translation by Catherine Perry. A kind of morality play about the speed with which both love and death make their mark, the song gets a judiciously paced performance from Resick and Jones. They do not take it too solemnly, though they do take it seriously.
The other setting by Massenet, ‘Les nuages’, is of a poem by the Comtesse Maurice Roch de Louvencourt (1887-1974), of whom I know almost nothing, save that she was born Cécile de Multedo and married Maurice de Louvencourt in 1911. This poem was set as the second song (of ten) in Massenet’s collection Expressions lyriques (1913). It is particularly interesting for the way in which, in the words of Susan Youens in her booklet essay, “sections and phrases rhythmically declaimed alternate with sung passages”. In this particular song, a prelude and postlude of declamatory writing frame a more lyrical middle section. The distinction relates to the text of the poem, the central stanzas of which are more emotionally intense than the more descriptive opening and closing stanzas. The piano’s role, as in many of Massenet’s mélodies, is more important and expressive than the mere word ‘accompaniment’ conveys, and Warren Jones is particularly effective here. Georgine Resick handles the transitions to and from ‘speech’ to ‘song’ beautifully. This is one of the highlights of the album.
Another highlight (though, it has to be said, there are no ‘duds’ anywhere on the album) is Korngold’s short sequence Unvergänglichkeit (1933), which sets texts by one Eleonore van der Straten. According to Professor Youens, she was a Belgian poet born in 1845. I am unable to add anything further despite an afternoon spent searching reference books on my shelves and the Internet. Presumably written in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, van der Straten’s poems are very much songs of love and death:
Nimm meinen schweren Dornenkranz
Aus meinem weißen Haar,
Den Kranz der dunklen Schmerzgedanken,
Laß' um mein müdes Haupt Weinlaub der Freude ranken.
Es soll das Rebenblatt mich lehren durch seine Pracht
und durch sein Rot,
Daß Liebe eine große Macht
Und stärker noch als selbst der Tod.
(Take the heavy thornwreath from my white hair,
The wreath of dark, painful thoughts.
Let creep around my weary head vine-leaves of joy.
The grape leaf should teach me through his ruddy splendour
That love is a mighty power
And even stronger than death.)
(translation by Georgine Resick)
Korngold’s settings (composed c. 1933/1934) respond very appropriately to such moods and themes, with some richly expressive writing which (in its use of melodic fourths, for example) owes something to the second Viennese school. Resick sounds completely at home in this music, and proves an ideal advocate for this short, but powerful, song cycle.
The poets as yet unmentioned – Amable Tastu, Marianne von Willemer and Karoline Pichler – need not (for different reasons) detain us long. Tastu (1778-1855), whose real name was Sabine Casimire Amable Voïart, was a lady of letters who wrote a number of educational texts and produced a French translation of Robinson Crusoe as well as some volumes of poetry, including Poésies (1826) and Poésies nouvelles (1835). Her poems were written in a derivative romantic idiom, often delicately sentimental. Saint-Saens’ setting of ‘La feuille de peuplier’ was written when the composer was still in his teens and was yet to achieve a musical voice of his own. This is perhaps the least interesting track on the CD.
While Tastu was a figure of little importance, both von Willemer and Pichler are better known through their connections with Schubert. Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) was born Marian Jung and travelled, as a child, with a theatrical company performing as a dancer and an actress, before marrying (in 1814) a Frankfurt banker, J.J. Willemer. Shortly before their wedding, the two visited Goethe in Wiesbaden. A friendship – largely conducted by mail – grew up between the great poet and the much younger Marianne. Marianne became, as Susan Youens puts it, “both Muse and collaborator” when Goethe was writing his great collection of poems Der Westöstlicher Divan, a collection written in response to the poetry of the great Persian poet Hafiz. One part of Goethe’s collection contains poems supposedly exchanged between two imaginary lovers Hatem and Suleika. As Goethe’s ‘Suleika’, Marianne von Willimer apparently contributed four poems to the sequence – two of which were set by Schubert, as Suleika I (‘Was bedeutet die Bewegung?’) and Suleika II (‘Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen’). The first of these was described by Brahms, with forgivable hyperbole, as “the loveliest song ever written”. The text of both songs (texts which Goethe may have ‘tidied up’) uses the conceit of the wind carrying news of one lover’s emotions to the other, like a kind of angelic postman. In both of his excellent settings, Schubert evokes the emotionally-laden stirrings and movements of the wind quite delightfully. While their performance cannot claim to be the ‘greatest’ ever, Resick and Jones certainly do justice to these two superb songs. If their interpretation were the only version one knew, one would certainly see how fine these songs are.
Karoline (or Caroline) Pilcher (1769-1843) was born in Vienna, daughter of a family well connected both at Court and in Viennese artistic circles. As a girl, she met Haydn and studied with Mozart (who often played at her parents’ house); she became an accomplished pianist. In 1796 she married the civil servant Andreas Pichler, brother of the important publisher Anton Pichler. For a period of more than twenty years (c. 1802-1824) Karoline and her husband hosted a cultural salon which attracted figures such as the Schlegel brothers, Beethoven, Grillparzer, Schubert, Tieck, Johann Michael Vogl and others. Pichler herself wrote historical novels. Indeed the text set by Schubert as ‘Der Unglügliche’ (The Unhappy One) comes from one of her novels, Olivier, where it is sung by a Princess to a knight (Olivier), whose many misfortunes include being badly scarred by smallpox. Princess Adelinde’s song is both a form of consolation and, in effect, a revelation of her love for him, as she declares, in the fifth of the song’s seven stanzas, “Du hast ein Herz, das dich verstand, gefunden” (You have found a heart that understands you). Schubert’s setting, grand and powerful, gets a fine performance from Resick and Jones.
This CD has, for me, involved both a process of discovery and, pleasurably renewed encounters with familiar ‘vocal’ friends. I have enjoyed the consistent musical intelligence of both singer and pianist. Their interpretations, whether of frequently heard songs by Schubert or Fauré, or of less often performed songs by John Harbison, display both the appropriate spirit and an impressive competence across a range of musical idioms.
Glyn Pursglove Contents John HARBISON (b. 1938) Mirabai songs
It’s True, I went to the Market [2:58]
All I Was Doing Was Breathing [2:46]
Why Mira Can’t Go Back to her Old House [1:56]
Where Did You Go? [2:33]
The Clouds [3:16]
Don’t Go, Don’t Go [4:30] Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Suleika I [5:33]
Sulieka II [4:51]
Heimliches Lieben [4:55]
Der Unglückliche [8:07] Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1922)
La feuille de peuplier [1:45] Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Cygne sur l’eau [3:37] Jules MASSENET (1842-1912]
Plus Vite [2:29]
Les nuages [2:59] Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957) Unvergänglichkeit
Unvergänglichkeit I [2:28]
Das eilende Bächlein [1:47]
Das schlafende Kind [2:35]
Stärker als der Tod [1:59]
Unvergänglichkeit II [2:52] Richard WILSON (b.1941) Three Painters
Marc Chagall [1:25]
Grandma Moses [2:11]
Jackson Pollock [0:55]