Brion / Sindbad / Exiles (Cygnus Ensemble, Peabody Trio, Sequitur, Shirley-Quirk, Baker, Hostetter)
Naxos CD 8.559660
After having a couple of pieces featured on compilation recordings that appeared on the Albany imprint (including the memorable work Virginal for Sequitur), composer Harold Meltzer’s first solo disc is on Naxos. Meltzer’s music combines an incisive sense of rhythm – he’s particularly thoughtful in setting the rhythms of speech – with a varied pitch palette that combines judicious but punctilious use of dissonance with lush, often haunting, moments of repose.
The Cygnus Ensemble makes a palpable delineation between these two musical approaches on their sharply etched recording of Brion (2008). This piece was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and one can hear why. It’s fastidious in its craftsmanship, yet abundantly imaginative. Centering around a bird call-based ritornello refrain, which easily moves between foreground and background presentation, its intricate design is just the type of work that’s tailor made for Cygnus’ modernist performance specialists. And Brion isn’t sparing in its technical demands either. Guitar flurries are matched by virtuosic flute passages in several bustling duos. But the ritornello supplants this with an eerily pastoral music suffused with chirping birds and, at the piece’s close, an intriguing, if somewhat uneasy, sense of harmonic closure.
On “Two Songs from Silas Marner,” soprano Elizabeth Farnum negotiates the high tessitura with grace, bringing delicate shading of dynamics to her characteristic pitch-perfect accuracy.
Both sprechstimme and monodrama have, not entirely unfairly, gotten a reputation for sounding carbon-dated at best and often mawkish when not well-deployed. While Sindbad may not entirely allay these misgivings, Meltzer’s aforementioned talent for word-setting and a passionate performance by baritone (here as speaker) John Shirley-Quirk make a case for this hybridized musical/dramatic form. It certainly helps that the speaker is accompanied by such colorful and multifaceted music.
Sequitur appears here too, accompanying baritone Richard Lalli in Exiles, a two-movement work featuring settings of Conrad Aiken and Hart Crane. Written in a kind of “bari-tenor” register (Exiles was originally composed for the tenor Paul Sperry), it could, in the hands of a lesser (or lower) baritone, seem a bit strained. But Lalli too negotiates the upper regions with a supple and, at times, surprisingly gentle approach. It well befits Exiles haunting lyricism and limber long-lined melodies.
All told, this disc is a very strong outing that begs for a sequel.