OPERA NEWS - Vita Brevis, Useful Knowledge, Characteristics
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MORAVEC: Vita Brevis, Useful Knowledge, Characteristics

spacer With Burton, Scarlata; Mulligan, piano, Trio Solisti, La Fenice. No texts. Naxos 8.559698

Recordings Moravec cover 712

Buffalo-born composer Paul Moravec will forever have the identifier "Pulitzer prize-winning" attached to his name. Two of the pieces in this collection pre-date his 2004 citation for Tempest Fantasy. Vita Brevis, heard here in an arrangement for soprano and piano trio from 2009, started life as a strong cycle for voice and piano in 2002. The five movements, arranged in an arch form, set texts by six poets. The sequence, corresponding to the cycle of life, is rewarding, with the line "half my life" coming at mid-point. The middle movement, "Mezzo cammin," merges words from Dante with words from Longfellow. We're in Argento territory here, but without the last bit of Argento's gift for specificity in the writing of either the vocal line or the instrumental parts. Too often the instrumental textures simply thicken the original piano part, with the strings moving in consistent rhythmic unison with the piano. This becomes particularly wearying by the fourth movement, a setting of Yeats's "The Coming of Wisdom with Time." Pure-toned soprano soloist Amy Burton, a fine musician, has trouble competing with the players. Naxos, sadly, does not provide texts in the CD booklet, but Burton does well in putting over the words of Wordsworth's "My Heart Leaps Up," a shimmering scherzo treatment of the poem.

The biggest work on offer here, the nineteen-minute single-movement cantata Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy (2006), also involves an artful arrangement of text. Large paragraphs of Benjamin Franklin's words are interspersed with aphorisms, in the manner of Britten's plot for the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. The music too has a firm form, something that cannot be taken for granted today. Moravec writes a huge climax of pure major chords, across all registers, two-thirds of the way through. Franklin's famous invention, the glass harmonica, is heard at the beginning and end of the piece, merged with string harmonics. (It is played by Cecilia Brauer, who spins the wet bowls when the Met uses the glass harmonica for the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor.) The instrumental body here otherwise consists of piano quartet plus oboe, with the oboe often sounding odd man out. Baritone Randall Scarlata has better luck projecting words than Burton does, if at the expense of variety of color, but he is placed backwardly in the sound mix.

Characteristics, for solo piano, is a substantial intermezzo between the vocal items. These seven impressions of musicians are a more extended version of the little pieces in Virgil Thomson's Portraits and Leonard Bernstein's Anniversary sets. The highlights are "Serene," a sketch of the countertenor Russell Oberlin in which the registers of the piano are carefully set out and maintained, and "Elegant," an exploration of the resonances of the instrument well-suited to the pianism of the dedicatee, Anthony de Mare. Simon Mulligan plays them all with complete command. spacer


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