Lawrence Brownlee and Damien Sneed: "Spiritual Sketches"
LeChateau Earl Records 888174029597
Several of the selections on The Heart That Flutters were recorded live at Wigmore Hall in September 2012, and the changes in acoustical ambience from the controlled cushioning of a studio to the resonant buzz of a concert hall, complete with discreet throat-clearing, can be a bit jarring. That said, it's worth noting that tenor Lawrence Brownlee comes off superbly in both settings. In four songs by Duparc, he is tender and yearning, with that indefinable edge that stirs emotion in the listener on a primal level. Particularly in "Chanson triste" and "Extase," his sound seems to hover over the notes, hummingbird-like, with a quivering, anticipatory passion. In Lizst's Three Petrarch Sonnets, Brownlee's Italian is occasionally tinged with a Gallic nasality, but this serves him well when vaulting to the top of his range, as in "Pace non trovo." One can hear the expectant murmur in the audience at the first notes of the intro to "Ah! mes amis…. Pour mon âme," from La Fille du Régiment. Brownlee seizes the opportunity for operatic drama and delivers, all the way through to his thrilling nine high Cs. What's remarkable about them is that the first eight don't break the vocal line at all, so that the uninitiated might not realize quite how high a note he's hitting. Then he holds the final C for an impossibly long eight seconds, with no diminution in quality. The resulting bravos are well earned. He showcases his gift for fioritura in his other, equally impressive operatic turn, "Tu seconda il mio disegno," from Il Turco in Italia.
The title of the album comes from the third of four songs by Ben Moore, settings of Joyce and Yeats, which combine a dulcet, old-fashioned quality with dollops of harmonic tanginess. The vocal lines are long and lyrical, but somehow the texts don't land with maximum impact, perhaps as a result of Brownlee's open diction. Still, Moore's songs are pleasing and capitalize on the inherent sweetness in Brownlee's tone. Ginastera's Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas are a beguiling collection, allowing Brownlee to be playful in "Chacarera," soulful in "Triste" and soothing in "Arrorró." "Gato" finishes off the set with bravura playing by pianist Iain Burnside and another scintillating high C from Brownlee. The recording is bookended by two spirituals arranged in traditional fashion by H. T. Burleigh — "Deep River" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," which Brownlee performs with simplicity and clarity.
Both songs recur on Spiritual Sketches, in which Brownlee offers a heartier helping of spirituals, all with inventive accompaniments arranged and performed with élan by Damien Sneed. Where Burleigh aims for directness, Sneed uses both piano and voice to explore the emotional repercussions of the text. For example, in "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," the vocal line stretches out further with each iteration of the phrase "a long way from home," until the lonely soul succumbs to a wordless vocalise. "There is a Balm in Gilead" is affectingly heartfelt, while in "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" Brownlee and Sneed embellish each verse with increasing fervor that never breaks the bounds of good taste. There's an improvisatory feel to Sneed's intro to "Sinner Please Don't Let this Harvest Pass" that segues effortlessly into a Debussian arpeggiation and then back to jazz, with a twist ending. "Come by Here Good Lord" is a swinging rag, and the driving bass of "Soon I Will Be Done" propels Brownlee to salvation with a hair-raising high D. The disc closes with a robust gospel rendition of "Down by the Riverside." It's hard to imagine a collection of spirituals more artfully and impassionedly performed than these.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER
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