THOMSON: The Feast of Love (1964). CARPENTER: Water-Colors (1916). HARRIS: Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun (1959). GRIFFES: 5 Poems of Ancient China & Japan, op. 10 (1917). PARKER: Cahál Mór of the Wine-Red Hand (1893).
Patrick Mason (baritone), The Odense Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann.
Bridge BRIDGE9254 (F) (DDD) TT: 57:56
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The orchestral song -- song for voice and orchestra -- has its roots in the Baroque cantata, the classical concert aria, and, more recently, Berlioz's Nuits d' Été. Brahms took the concert aria and turned it into a lyric meditation, as in his Alt-Rhapsodie. Mahler, of course, took the Berlioz lyric to its height in his Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, and Das Lied von der Erde. The genre has attracted a host of composers, major and minor, of different periods and styles, and this CD provides an intelligent mini-survey.

We remember Horatio Parker today less for his music than for the fact that he taught Charles Ives at Yale. Ives, in later years, mocked Parker as the epitome of Victorian gentility, but the fact remains that under Parker's tuition, Ives acquired a first-class professional technique. Furthermore, Parker was one of the early Wagnerians in America at a time when Wagner represented the musically far-out. Nevertheless, Ives had a point. The concert aria Cahál Mór of the Red Hand takes a poem by the Irish writer James Clarence Mangan, a poet I don't care for although Yeats and Joyce disagree with me. The text combines (with an Irish folklore twist) Poe's "The City in the Sea," "The Conqueror Worm," and "The Haunted Palace," and Poe comes off better. One has to wonder what moved Parker to set this piece of conscious antiquarianism in the first place, since there's no obvious tie to personal experience. Generally speaking, an artist is drawn to the antique (or the exotic) for two reasons. First, the antique allows him to say something that he can't say in his own voice or in contemporary terms. Second, the antique becomes a guarantor of art, that what one says is important because it has the authority of the old. The latter seems to me the case here, a formula for dead art despite Parker's command over orchestration, form, and vocal writing. Its Wagnerisms interest me the most. The extended prelude comes straight out of the prelude to Das Rheingold while the appearance of the castle comes from the "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla." It reminds me of a ventriloquist act or high-toned karaoke.

Parker's music does take part in the cultural malaise of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, in the sense that it seems to feel that all the really good music had already been written. However, the avant-garde -- Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, and, slightly later, Stravinsky and Schoenberg -- had already begun to reach beyond a small coterie. John Alden Carpenter became intrigued with the music of Debussy and started writing Impressionist music. As the songs of Water-Colors show, Carpenter, like Debussy, uses these techniques to evoke an idealized orientalia, setting Georgian translations of Chinese lyrics. Compared to Parker's, Carpenter's instrumentation, colored by an orchestral piano, sounds cleaner, more streamlined, and even beautiful. Debussy, however, drew close to the Orient because the art showed him a way forward, a new way to think about the music he wanted to write and to leave Wagnerism behind. Carpenter takes what I'd call Decorative Debussy, similarly to how Parker uses Wagner, as a guarantor of quality, like a collector filling up his house with japonisme, rather than with Frank Lloyd Wright. One hears echoes not only of La boîte à joujoux and the second book of Preludes, but also of Sullivan's Mikado, which suggests that Carpenter offers an exercise in exoticism, rather than something he needs to express.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes also takes from Debussy for his Chinese (and Japanese) settings, but the result differs markedly from that of Carpenter. Debussy gave Griffes more than a new musical filigree -- a new intensity of feeling. Griffes pursues a vision of short-lived, concentrated beauty in almost all his work, even in the early pieces still influenced by Wagner, as exemplified in the titles of his best-known works: Clouds, The White Peacock, and perhaps the most famous fleeting vision of all, The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan. Melodically, Griffes restricts his vocal line to pure pentatonic scale: that is, you can play all the melodies on the black keys of the piano. This is a fairly dangerous move, since melodies in the pentatonic scale tend first to sound alike and second to lose one's interest. For these reasons, most Western composers employing pentatonicism cheat to some extent -- introducing the occasional non-scalar tone or, more likely, modulating. Griffes leaves the scale alone, at least in the vocal part. The brevity of these songs -- none lasts more than two-and-a-half minutes -- works to accomplish this. However, Griffes gets, in spite of his handicap, an amazing variety out of his melodies, mainly through rhythm, the supporting harmony, and the virtuosity of his orchestration. The instrumental ensemble can weep with flutes and glitter like a dragonfly wing. Every note seems perfectly placed. All in all, a long-lost gem found again.

If Parker, Carpenter, and Griffes represent the birth pangs of Modernism, those pangs had largely passed by the writing of the final two pieces on the program. Composers had broken through to new aesthetics and means of expression and had reaped the fruits of hard-won mastery and exploration. At one time, you could have plumped a sizeable wager on Roy Harris as the major American composer. Koussevitzky proclaimed his Third Symphony the greatest by an American. However, things didn't turn out that way. Although Harris kept writing at a high level, interest in his music waned after World War II. The young Turks regarded him as a punch-line, laughably old-hat and windy, when they thought about him at all. Thanks to Bernstein's championship, Copland slipped into first, and Harris largely lacked a strong advocate. Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun, a powerful work indeed, takes for its text a long Walt Whitman poem in two parts, the first a pastoral and the second an anti-pastoral -- a Whitmanesque update of the eighteenth-century genre of country vs. city. Whitman's free prosody and long clauses pose challenges to a coherent setting, but Harris manages to provide a free-flowing, "natural" line to the soloist. Furthermore, Harris manages to capture, like no other composer I know, the bustle of Whitman's city poems and give coherence to Whitman's sprawl -- exactly what we expect from a master symphonist.

Despite the change of means, Romanticism didn't die during the Modern era. Plenty of major composers, especially British and American, kept essentially a Romantic aesthetic. Music still aimed to express emotional states. Virgil Thomson was one of the rare artists who took an objective view of music. This does not mean that his music doesn't move you, but that it does so indirectly, presenting a series of images, without commentary, suggesting emotion rather than nudging you in the ribs. It's the difference between apostrophizing "Skylark! Bird of evanescence!" and noting "a disappearing wing." Thomson will remain an enigma to many listeners, but if you're tuned into imagism and collage, he may very well speak to you.

The Feast of Love, a mini-cantata, has held a place among my musical furniture ever since Howard Hanson led a classic performance with baritone David Clatworthy on a Sixties Mercury LP. Among those who haven't heard a lot of his work, Thomson is probably best known as a musical Dadaist, with works like Four Saints in Three Acts and Capital, Capitals, but his output shows a very wide range, beyond what Ned Rorem thought of as dominant-tonic done to death. The Feast of Love owes something to Stravinsky, with its bubbling ostinatos depicting the generative power of nature and its lean, elegant textures. Thomson, one of the great setters of words, takes for his text his own translation of the Pervigilium veneris, a celebration of the power of love in nature. Over a regular pulse, the baritone declaims, "Tomorrow shall all know love. Love knows all tomorrow. . . . The unknowing shall know as well as the knowing. . . . Love knows all tomorrow, all who have never loved," to an asymmetrical line that insinuates unpredictably against the beat. It's a marvelous opening, but it's not the only wonder in the piece. Throughout, Thomson makes great musical poetry, giving a lesson in varying textures and simultaneously providing a feeling of continuity and cohesion. The baritone takes us through the breathless anticipation of desire, the awesome power of love, serene pastoral, regret, and finally, the return to suppressed excitement of the opening. To me, this rates as an American masterpiece.

Baritone Patrick Mason has provided a terrific program and performs stylishly in all these works. He handles the differing styles without jar, and makes the best case for each composer. His voice hints at a little wear, but I don't care. He still has plenty of vocal beauty, and he's a singer smarter than most. Paul Mann and his Danish Odense orchestra match the soloist. I complain only of the engineering, which puts Mason too far forward. The Hanson recording of Feast of Love is still available (Mercury Living Presence 434310, on an ArkivMusic reissue) and the new recording doesn't supersede it. Although I prefer Mason to Clatworthy, Hanson to me has overall a better grip on the music's flow, even though the sound isn't up to Bridge. The reissue also boasts classic recordings of McPhee's Tabuh-tabuhan, Sessions's powerful Black Maskers Suite, and Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Nevertheless, the Bridge doesn't become chopped liver. The Sessions and the Griffes alone are worth the price, and the Thomson is quite fine. You should buy both.

S.G.S. (July 2008)