The Complete Songs, Volumes I and II
The Florestan Recital Project
“I found [composing with and for electronics] boring and predictable – speakers cannot stand up to acknowledge applause. In electronic music everything is fixed, permanently. I missed presenting a score to a creative performer with the hope that he would take the piece into his own personality.”
One of the unexpected pleasures of reviewing the songs of the late Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) was discovering his candid and engaging personality. That’s always a boon for the writer desperately in search of a “lead” to begin his review. Pinkham provides the critic numerous literary gems of that sort. In his long career he set his hand at it all: symphonies, cantatas, concertos, oratorios, and chamber music for a great variety of instrumental combinations, embracing means as diverse as medieval modes and plainchant, dodecaphony, serialism, and electronic music. One gets the feeling from listening to Volumes I and II of the Florestan Project’s Complete Songs project that song had a special significance for Pinkham, something to which he returned time and again over the years. It all fits in with his love of writing with a specific occasion and his love of contact with the singers and instrumentalists: “I have no unperformered music.”
Volume I of the present series embraces settings of poems by such as A E Houseman, Emily Dickinson, and particularly James Wright (1927-1980), with whose poetry Pinkham’s music formed a close, personal correlative. Wright was influenced by both Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy, both of whom he resembled in the denseness and exuberance of his imagery. We find this quality particularly in Pinkham’s settings from The Green Wall and Where Love Has Gone, both sung here by Joe Dan Harper, accompanied by guitarist Jim Piorkowski in the former and pianist Anne Kissel Harper in the latter. I normally don’t like settings of free verse (which Frost once compared to playing tennis without the net) because they tend to result in too much sameness resulting from the heightened declamation that is inevitable when the composer doesn’t have meter or rhyme to relate to. These are more palatable than most, owing largely to the imagination residing in Wright’s images: “The kind of poetry I want is my love / who comes back with the rain. Oh, I / would love to lie down long days long, / the long / down slipping the gown from her / shoulders.”
The handful of Dickinson poems in Called Home require, and receive, more cadenced settings in keeping with the poet’s use of liturgical cadence and clipped expression: “Promise this – When you be Dying – / Some shall summon Me – / Mine belong your latest Sighing – / Mine – / to Belt your Eye – / Not with Coins – though they be Minted / From an Emperor’s Hand – / Be My Lips – the only Buckle – / Your low eyes demand.” And of course, Dickinson’s preoccupation with death finds expression in all five poems in the series, providing a rare degree of unity: “Some, too fragile for winter winds / The thoughtful grave encloses – / Tenderly tucking them in from frost / Before their feet are cold.”
Tenor Joe Dan Harper and baritone Aaron Engebreth alternate the vocal assignments in Volume II, which consist of settings of Psalms, other Scriptural Sources, and poems with religious significance in their imagery by such olden poets as Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Thomas Campion, George Wither and Sir Philip Sydney, with Emily Dickinson’s whimsical “Angels at Play” and the robust exuberance of Gerard Manley Hopkins thrown in for a change of pace: “Bring hither pearl, opal, sard; / Reck not what the poor have lost; / Upon Christ throw all away; / Know ye this is Easter Day.” The various Psalms, wisdom literature Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Letters of St. Paul and St. Ambrose in this Volume find perfect sound=sense correlation in Pinkham’s settings, which can be lyrical, meditative, or dramatic as the text requires. He captures to perfection the intimacy in so many of these texts. And the organ accompaniment by Heinrich Christensen is always sensitive to the mood and ambience of the song.
In short, the present 2-CD package is an ideal introduction to a composer who was to claim, “The single event that changed my life was a concert [at Andover] by the Trapp Family Singers in 1939, right after they had escaped from the Nazis. They had virginals, recorders, a gamba, and I had never heard anything like that in my life … Here, suddenly, I was hearing clarity, simplicity.” Coming at a time in history when the basic sound of western music, like it or not, was post-Wagnerian, it shaped Pinkham’s whole outlook on life and music.