American Songs

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American Songs

  • Sallie Chisum remembers Billy the Kid
  • (12) Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • (6) Elizabethan Songs
  • (10) Hermit Songs
  • Vocalise

Barbara Bonney is allegedly related to Billy the Kid. Allegedly. She herself is convinced, or rather was convinced, when she first saw the pictures. The resemblance to her own father was “terrifying”: the big searching eyes, the ears that stick out – the look. And then an American friend in London gave her a copy of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and that’s where Andre Previn came in. Sally Chisum remembers Billy the Kid – the spur of this all-American programme – takes its cues from Wild West history – or is that mythology? Sally Chisum was a prostitute who went to bed with both Billy and Pat Garrett, and her words are starry-eyed. Previn sets them as she will have remembered them, touches of sweet sentiment in the voice played off against the dusty and gritty realities of the keyboard. There’s more than a hint of the bar-room piano in that. And then up soars the voice recalling the “flower in his lapel” and the fragrance of it lends a touch of naivety.
I’ve said it before, but Previn has a way with words and music. He has a way with the music of words. Tiny details have their way with you. When Sally sings of the “good mixed in with the bad in Billy” corrupting blue notes tell it as it really was. Similarly the pay-off – “no matter what they did in the world, or what the world thought of them, they were my friends” – which surrenders to the romance of one who knew them “intimately” in melody that isn’t afraid to wear its heart where all can see it. At the opposite end of this recital, Previn’s hommage to vocalises great and small (most notably Rachmaninov’s) once more weaves its spell (Sylvia McNair, the dedicatee, first aired it, amongst other Previn songs, on the Sony album “From Ordinary Things”, 5/97). I like Bonney’s way with it still more. It’s the intimacy, the way she casually – oh, so casually – takes up the line from the cello as if having just conceived it. It’s the quality of musing or dreaming, and it makes you stop and wonder for a moment where the music comes from.
We know full well where the rest comes from. With the exception of Dominick Argento’s Six Elizabethan Songs we’re talking pillars of the American songbook here. The Argento was a shrewd choice, not just on account of its rarity value (this is the world premiere recording), but because Bonney and Previn both have ties with England which adds something to our perception of the cycle’s Anglo/American cross-breeding. Both are brilliantly articulate and quick of reflex, the mix of ancient and modern, the ornate and the reflective – indeed the somnambulant – is beautifully judged. And how fascinating it is to ponder Argenta’s setting of “Hymn” as against Britten’s in his Serenade. It’s all in the words “excellently bright”: Britten crisp and pert and even, the very model of courtly correctness (and a hint of self-mockery?); Argenta languorous, as in the radiant after-glow: “now the sun is laid to sleep”.
The Copland and Barber sets are splendid, too. In Copland’s Emily Dickinson, Bonney of course has the wholesome, homespun qualities – the pure and simple gifts – this music demands. We know how raptly she will sustain “Heart, we will forget him!”, and she does. There is ecstasy and truth in this voice. But she can be feisty, too, deploying a determined and surprisingly resilient low register for “There came a wind like a bugle” and the awesome plunge to “East of eternity” in “Sleep is supposed to be”. And where Dickinson is the playful child – as in “Why do they shut me out of Heaven?” and “Going to Heaven!” – there is a knowing coyness. In all this, Previn’s contribution, his partnership, is invaluable (what an excellent pianist he is). Listen to him sign off “Going to Heaven!” Not so much the exclamation mark, more the wink. And listen to him, too, lending weight and masculinity to the bolder illuminations of Barber’s Hermit Songs. His resoluteness undoubtedly helps Bonney darken and intensify her response to these songs. “The Monk and his Cat” sounds all the more cosy and incongruous in consequence. We may have each other, it seems to say, but in the end we have only ourselves. To that end, the closing song – “The Desire for Hermitage” – is marvellous. A very real sense of isolation permeates the final stanza. Bonney and Previn may be two, but for the time being they are one.
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