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Recordings

Sweet was the Song
01 Dec 2006

Sweet was the Song

I doubt that this recital disc, recorded in 2004, could have been intended as a memorial to Arne Dorumsgaard, who died in March of 2006, but the composer’s centrality to the program, and the poetic themes of death, sleep, and mortality that recur in the Elizabethan texts, enable such an interpretation.

Sweet was the Song

Robert Bracey, tenor, Andrew Harley, piano, Scott Rawls, viola

Centaur CRC 2779 [CD]

$18.98  Click to buy

The recital’s actual theme is Elizabethan poetry as set by British composers of the period or of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, all performed by tenor Robert Bracey and pianist Andrew Harley. The final 15 minutes of the 70-minute program are given over to a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Four Hymns for Tenor, Piano and Viola, where they are joined by a fellow member of the University of North Carolina faculty, violist Scott Rawls.

Within the vocal music world, Dorumsgaard is best known for his 22-volume Canzone Scordate, sensitive arrangements for voice and piano of a wide variety of songs that would not otherwise be available to artists in vocal-piano recitals: European folk songs, old songs in French, Italian, and German, as well as the songs on this disc, most of which were originally lute songs by Elizabethan-period composers John Dowland, John Bartlet, and John Attey. Other artists who have recorded his arrangements include Frederica von Stade and Gerard Souzay, as well as Kirsten Flagstad, who recorded a recital of Dorumsgaard’s original songs in Norwegian along with a selection of his arrangements. (The best source of information on him that I have found online is his obituary.)

The present disc begins with five settings of Elizabethan poetry by Roger Quilter, whose skillful settings of the texts and interesting but unobtrusive accompaniments draw us in and introduce three texts that we will hear again later in the program: Shakespeare’s “O Mistress Mine” and “Come away death”, and the anonymous “Weep you no more”, all of which intertwine the themes of love and death, through grief for the beloved, grief for oneself at being scorned by the beloved, or an exhortation to love now as death will come soon enough.

This set is followed by a generous selection of Dorumsgaard’s arrangements. As the tunes, if not the arrangements, are contemporary with the poetry itself, this section gives a taste of the musical environment in which the poets wrote the texts. The difficulty I have with this section is that there is insufficient contrast among the songs to keep my interest engaged all the way through. With the exception of the minute given over to the energetic “What thing is love?” the music is fairly languid. There are ten English lute song arrangements available in the Canzone Scordate; the artists present six here, then wisely follow with Dorumsgaard’s arrangement of Thomas Arne’s eighteenth-century setting of Shakespeare’s “Come away death”, which adds some stylistic contrast and eases the transition toward the more modern music.

We re-enter the twentieth century with Eric Thiman’s “The Silver Swan”, a bird whose song in dying makes the statement “More Geese than Swans now live—more fools than wise”, which is curmudgeonly but perhaps fitting as a follow-up to the work of Dorumsgaard, who gave up original composition and devoted himself to arrangements of earlier music. As if to emphasize the contrast between the earlier era and the present, the next song is Gustav Holst’s “Weep you no more”, a text heard twice before as set by Quilter and Dowland, but noticeably different from either in Holst’s Wagner-influenced harmonies. The Germanic influence continues into Ivor Gurney’s delicately lush setting of “Sleep”, a text which reappears two songs later in an equally fine setting by Peter Warlock, who counted among his many musical influences both Roger Quilter and the music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Thus it is fitting that the Elizabethan-inspired section of the program closes with several more of Warlock’s songs to Elizabethan texts, finishing with the lively “As ever I saw”.

By this point in the program, we have spent about 55 minutes hearing a variety of musical styles unified by the poetry of a single glorious era in English literature. Bracey sings the songs in an engaged but straightforward style that doesn’t vary in color much beyond a consistently ringing timbre that grew a bit tiring for this listener after a while. But when the sonic landscape opens out with the addition of the viola and the more triumphant, extroverted music of Vaughan Williams’ 4 Hymns, Bracey comes into his own. According to the CD booklet, he won first prize in the Oratorio Society of New York’s Annual International Solo Competition in 2002, and his skill with that style of music translates well to this piece, which opens with the two instruments playing at full volume and the voice cutting through as a triumphant recitative. In the more meditative second and third songs, the warmth of the viola brings out a warmth in Bracey’s voice which, if it was there, was not as pronounced earlier in the recital, when it would have been welcome. An echo of the triumph of the first song is heard in the concluding “Evening Hymn” with its evocative ground bass in the piano part of the first and last verses of the voice, continuing under the viola’s postlude that gradually fades into quiet as evening falls.

The booklet includes texts of the songs and notes on the composers represented in the program, as well as biographies of the artists and publication information on the songs.

Barbara Miller

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