> Choral and Song
Dear Theo; So Free Am I; Ode to a Nightingale
S. Phillips, Appleby, Polegato with Brian Zeger. Texts. Delos DE 3437
Each of these three song cycles — given their first recorded performances on this Delos disc — displays composer Ben Moore's aptitude for psychologically probing yet undeniably appealing storytelling.
In Dear Theo, Moore delves into the troubled mind of Vincent van Gogh by setting letters from the painter's lifelong correspondence with his younger brother, Theo. Each of the cycle's five songs is structured in more or less the same way: a conversational beginning expands in harmony and passion as van Gogh expresses his longing for freedom, his insecurities and his desires. At a climactic moment, Moore slows the forward motion of the music and meditates on a phrase or word. The repetition allows the phrase or word to gather new meaning in the mind of the listener, while the music swirls, hovers and grows in intensity. The release can be quiet, as in "I Found a Woman," and hopeful, as in "The Red Vineyard," or devastating, as in "Souvenir."
Paul Appleby's interpretation of Dear Theo seems fully realized: with his youthful tenor, Appleby applies the humanity and complexity of the wounded painter to Moore's music.
So Free Am I is six settings of poems by women spanning more than 2,000 years. From the personal freedom expressed by Buddhist nuns to confessions of desire and pain hidden beneath domestic obligation and propriety, Moore has compiled the twenty-first century's response to Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben. The third song in the cycle, "Orinda Upon Little Hector Philips," is the most beautiful and haunting in the cycle. It sets an excerpt from a lament by seventeenth-century English poet Katherine Philips, in which the poet mourns the premature death of her son. It begins with a skeletal texture and a melody oppressed by intervals that drop like slowly falling teardrops. Soprano Susanna Phillips whispers her anguish to herself until her voice opens into throat-splitting cries. Moore tempers this with the society woman who in Anna Wickham's "Nervous Prostration" bemoans a loveless marriage of convenience with dark, playful humor.
The third cycle on the album is a setting of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale." Baritone Brett Polegato assumes the role of the poet, reciting in melody Keats's long poem with a bright, open sound. Moore separates the poem by stanza into eight songs, each of which could easily be performed as a stand-alone piece. They are tuneful (some ingratiatingly so) and feature the same crescendos of intent and texture displayed in Dear Theo. Nearly all the songs are crowned with magnificent preludes, interludes and postludes that set the scene like a grand nineteenth-century landscape portrait, with pianist Brian Zeger functioning as J. M. W. Turner.
Moore's setting of W. B. Yeats's dreamy "Lake of Innisfree" is perhaps the composer's most lovable song, and when sung with Appleby's poetic musicality, it is the perfect coda to an album of dreams, explorations and exultations.
STEVEN JUDE TIETJEN
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