I heard Theo Bleckmann perform Duet For One at a Bar Mitzvah, his gift to the initiate. He is both performer and composer here; the music displays his extraordinary vocal range, not to mention stamina. Earlier today I played the Duet for Aleba Gartner, who remarked that it reminded her of my own Trapset for alto flute, both in that the notes of different registers occupy different sound worlds, and in that there is a percussive quality to those worlds. In both cases, certainly, the low notes have a hollow, drum-with-a-skin quality. And in both cases there is disbelief that the sounds are produced by a single human performing live.
Duet for One, Theo Bleckmann
I was twenty-three and living in Cambridge, England. My new soprano friend Amanda Dean introduced me to the music of Judith Weir through a wonderful performance of her 1979 monodrama King Harald’s Saga. “Harald” is described as a grand opera in three acts with an overall duration of slightly under ten minutes. And it’s a monodrama in the purest sense, in that the solo soprano is unaccompanied by instruments. Weir’s incisive blend of wit and drama recreates the foolhardy expedition of a Norwegian king to conquer England. (He has his head handed to him, at the battle of Stamford Bridge, in 1066, a matter of weeks before the Normans defeated the Saxons at the battle of Hastings.) Eight roles are caricatured by the same singer, much as in the Ealing film Kind Hearts and Coronets the marvelous Alec Guinness plays eight heirs to a fortune, of both sexes and a variety of ages. Here is Act I of the Weir, with Susan Bickley singing.
Judith Weir, King Harald’s Saga, Act I
“Love’s a hand-me-down brew” in these blues. Who would spurn Peggy Lee when she sings so languorously? Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in North Dakota, Peggy Lee had a voice that to me could do just about anything. But be sexy. At least to me. Not even in “Fever”, fun as it is, does she sound truly sexy. I’m used to the good-girl voice she projects in “Till There Was You”, or in “Fools Rush In”, replete with harp accompaniment. But in “Black Coffee”, where she so artfully mimics the inflections of Billie Holliday so that it sounds natural to her, Peggy Lee is on fire.
Peggy Lee singing “Black Coffee” (1953)
music by Sonny Burke, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster (1948)
Okay, perhaps on another beautiful day in Berkshires I shouldn’t wave goodbye so quickly to summer. Igor Severyanin’s poem beholds daisies in perfect summer bloom, and Rachmaninoff doesn’t hold back. I got to know the music when I was fourteen, first in the transcription for solo piano that the composer made for himself, and which Morton Estrin, my piano teacher at the time, recorded for Connoisseur Society Records. But the song is rich and penetrating in ways that leave the piano transcription merely pretty. I love this performance by a very young Julia Lezhneva.
Rachmaninoff, Daisies, Opus 38, no. 3
Julia Lezhneva, soprano; Michael Antonenko, piano
This week I am in the Berkshires, preparing for a performance at Tanglewood of my Variations on a Summer Day, songs which in part were previewed on the NYFOS Next series two years ago. Songs about summer, and about mountains, spring to mind. I am numbering these days of perfection, sad for them to end but already making plans for the fall. Over and again I am hearing Robert Schumann’s song Des Sennen Abschied, to Friedrich Schiller’s poem, their farewell to the willows and wells of water and flowers of the season. The narrator is an Alpine hersdman, proclaiming “Der Sommer ist hin,” or “The summer is gone.”
The open, clean drone of a fifth, in the open, clean key of C Major announces the new, sparer season. The E, which would make the chord full and vibrant, is mostly missing from the opening. But as the text turns to the defining characteristics of summer, the music shifts not only to include the E but to move toward E major as a key, as if bathing us in summer light. Just as the music would cadence in E major, giving summer to us as something we could keep, Schumann substitutes the opening drone, and the season and its wonders vanish. Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg do a remarkable job with it.
In the summer of his life, in the year 1840, Schumann wrote well over one hundred songs, among them the songs that comprise his well-known cycles Dichterliebe, Liederkreis and Fraunliebe und Leben. But this song issues from a decade later, in the autumn of his life, and I can’t help but assume that this song is the effort of an auto-biographer.
Robert Schumann, Des Sennen Abschied, Opus 79, no. 22
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Bengt Forsberg, piano
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