The program begins with seven songs of Charles Ives, followed by three by Leonard Bernstein. Interestingly, these very complex composers are represented by songs of innocence and nostalgia, generally easy to listen to, although not necessarily easy to perform well. “Two Little Flowers,” for instance, sets its charming little text about the composer’s young daughter and her friend to an accompaniment whose phrasing is half a beat off from that of the voice; and “The Side Show”, which opens the program, alternates triple and duple meter in imitation of a waltz tune being produced by a faulty mechanism. In these songs we can appreciate the artists’ impeccable rhythm and phrasing. “Down East” and “At the River” pass familiar tunes through the distorting power of memory, while “Berceuse” and “The Children’s Hour” share a sense of childhood viewed through adult eyes. This gentle nostalgia is set off by the liveliness of “The Circus Band”, that challenging rite of passage for any aspiring American accompanist. While Deborah Voigt sings it skillfully, pianist Brian Zeger is the real star in this song, bringing off the dense accompaniment with admirable energy and clarity. At first I was disappointed that the performers chose not to speak Ives’s written comment “hear the trombones” at the end of the bravura final interlude but, without the words to distract me, I realized just how well Zeger was in fact allowing me to hear the trombones in the bass line of Ives’s passing parade.
The short set of songs by Bernstein continues the evocation of childhood (or perhaps of second childhood, as in the playful “Piccola Serenata” written for the occasion of Karl Böhm’s eighty-fifth birthday). “Greeting,” which tells of the wonder around the birth of a new child, and “So Pretty,” which expresses a child’s bewilderment at the human cost of war, are both presented in a simple and heartfelt way. Without having to modify her large voice, Voigt is able to scale it back to sound childlike but not childish.
At the heart of the program is a fine set of art songs by the contemporary composer Ben Moore, who has composed several musical shows and cabaret pieces as well as humorous encore pieces for classical singers. While the songs earlier in the program evoked childhood, in many of Moore’s songs we see the dilemmas of people coming to terms with romantic love and the choices it invites them to make. These songs are all melodic, with interesting and singable texts, and harmonies and accompaniments that reinforce the poetry. It is fortunate that such talented artists have chosen to devote at least half of the recording to Moore’s songs, since they deserve to be heard. A particularly memorable song at first hearing is the setting of Thomas Hardy’s “The Ivy Wife,” which deflates the Victorian metaphor of the wife as clinging vine, faithful to the strong tree who is her husband. In a setting of great energy which eschews the delicacy and gentleness associated with that image, we hear a woman on a mission, telling us of how she set out to find the man whom she could cling to and eventually completely contain, and of the resultant destruction to them both.
From these most contemporary of songs, the program moves to the early twentieth century for a short but well-chosen set of songs by the often under-recognized Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The simplicity of “The Half-Ring Moon” and “Pierrot” are as well presented as the complex rhythms of “Cleopatra to the Asp” and the soaring passion of “Evening Song”, which recalls the late Romantic arias of Voigt’s debut recording. But for unabashed Romanticism, nothing on this disk can top the “Three Browning Songs” of Amy Beach, and in this case particularly it seems that the singer and songs were made for each other. The extended swelling phrases, culminating in notes held for multiple measures above the staff, the dynamic range, the skips between registers, all of these in support of the straightforward expression of emotion deeply felt and believed, cry out for the capabilities of a dramatic operatic voice like Voigt’s, and she navigates them with aplomb, as always fully and capably supported by Zeger. The order of the songs is modified slightly, placing “The Year’s at the Spring” at the end, so that the last thing we hear on the recording is the ecstatic declaration “All’s right, all’s right with the world!” Yes, indeed.