Barber; Bernstein; Bolcom Songs
Go straight to track 8 and hear William Bolcom’s songcycle I will breathe a mountain‚ composed for Marilyn Horne to sing at one of the Carnegie Hall centenary concerts in 1991. Eleven poems by women‚ chosen‚ together with Horne and Bolcom‚ by Alice Fulton‚ whose verse ‘How to swing those obbligatos around’ is the second song. Bolcom’s music‚ with its echoes of vaudeville and jazz wedded to a questioning‚ jagged accompaniment that complements the vocal line – now declamatory‚ now lyrical – matches the varied moods of the poems. Does the cycle tell a story? Most of the poems are either recollections or elegies. One is hectic – ‘The crazy woman’ by Gwendolyn Brooks – and the mood changes from nostalgia to defiance. Some of the writers are familiar – Emily Dickinson‚ Edna St Vincent Millay‚ Elizabeth Bishop‚ Marianne Moore‚ others not so well known: Anne Sexton (‘Just once’)‚ Denise Leverton (‘The sage’) and Mary Swenson (‘Night practice’). In ‘The bustle in a house’‚ Emily Dickinson’s quiet reflection on death‚ there is a little quote from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben. To all the songs‚ Horne brings that wonderfully definite style that characterised her great opera parts‚ but there is also a fragility and tenderness.
The Bernstein group is a mini survey of his career‚ ranging from the very early ‘Dream with me’‚ originally intended for On the Town in 1944‚ to ‘Take care of this house’ from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. ‘Rabbit at top speed’ is a crazy recipe‚ and a performance of typically robust humour.
The Samuel Barber group seems to put greater strain on the voice; there is an obtrusive beat sometimes‚ a thing that never bothered one in the past. Especially in ‘I hear an army’‚ if one compares Horne with Thomas Hampson on the twoCD set of Barber songs from 1994 (DG‚ 5/84)‚ or the Op 13 songs sung by Cheryl Studer on the same set‚ some of the pressure Horne puts on the tone seems excessive. Yet there is the Yeats setting ‘The secrets of the old’‚ with its poignant lines such as ‘For none alive today can know the stories that we know or say the things we say.’ To hear Marilyn Horne sing this is to be once more in the presence of one of the very greatest singers of our time.
The way she can touch on a word and give a tiny stress‚ or introduce a smile into her voice‚ makes a miniature song like this into a little play. As for Dover Beach‚ a big song for baritone‚ Horne certainly brings a whiff of the theatre to this that seems very different from the recordings by the composer himself‚ or Dietrich FischerDieskau. All in all‚ a rich and satisfying recital that is typically imaginative and searching.