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And If The Song Be Worth A Smile — Songs by American Composers
17 Aug 2009

And If The Song Be Worth A Smile — Songs by American Composers

The word "living" would be a fitting addition to the subtitle of this collection of "Songs by American Composers."

And If The Song Be Worth A Smile — Songs by American Composers

Lisa Delan with Kristin Pankonin (piano), Susanne Mentzer and Matt Haimovitz (cello)

Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 099 [CD]

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Three of the six composers represented were born in the 1930s and continue to pursue their craft, while the other three are much younger (although how many knew that in just a couple years, Jake Heggie will be 50?!).

Soprano Lisa Delan delivers these songs in a bright, crisp voice, not unlike an excellent if somewhat anonymous Broadway singer (think Florence Henderson). Kritin Pankonin accompanies on piano, dealing as well with the sophisticated honky-tonk of William Bolcom’s Four Cabaret Songs as the fussy prettiness of Heggie’s Four Songs. Ms. Delan’s husband cellist Matt Haimovitz joins her in the songs of David Garner, Luna Pearl Woolf, and one of the Heggie numbers, his strong, centered tone making handsome contributions. A guest appearance by Susanne Mentzer brightens another of the Jake Heggie songs.

The songs themselves? Bolcom’s Cabaret songs find him in “popular” mode. Your reviewer would imagine that Harold Arlen’s classic work serves as the ideal here. Bolcom has the right ideas, but the texts by Arnold Weinstein are nowhere near Johnny Mercer or E. Y. Harburg in natural idiom or inventiveness. Gordon Getty composed the texts for his Poor Peter, three songs in faux-19th century folk mode, with touches of chromatic modernity in the accompaniments, more ostentation than inspiration. Delan’s top range gets stretched a bit here, not attractively.

Heggie’s Four Songs may only have a superficial beauty, but that is appealing after the Getty pieces. When Mentzer joins Delan, however, the words of Sir Philip Sydney get lost in “My true love hath my heart.” The three “American folk song” settings that follow combine preciousness with refinement. Not exactly “folky.”

An unfamilair name, David Garner, supplies three intriguing pieces set to the German poetry of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Garner composes for piano and cello, and his settings, in an idiom usually disparaged as “conservative,” manage to have freshness and beauty. Again here, however, Delan must reach into regions of her voice less secure.

The two pieces by John Corigliano, to ostensibly sardonic texts by Mark Adamo, mean to be witty and parodic. “Dodecaphonia” is a tiresome ballad about “Twelve-tone Rose,” in mock Raymond Chandler mode. Four and a half minutes crawl by. The ode to the I-Pod, “Marvelous Invention” goes on for 5 minutes, to no greater effect. In performance these two pieces doubtlessly prompt the sort of mirthless chuckle classical audiences emit when they realize something “humorous” is afoot.

The torpor of those pieces has nothing on the final track, composed by Luna Pearl Woolf to a Pablo Neruda poem. The “Odas de Todo el Mundo” requires over ten minutes of time, and repays the listener with several seconds of passable musical interest.

A hit-and-miss collection, then, but surely rewarding for lovers of “Songs by American Composers.”

Chris Mullins

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