> Choral and Song
Crossley-Mercer; Peterson, piano. Texts and translations. Refinersfire RF-1422
Carmina Catulli, the title of Michael Linton’s song cycle for baritone and piano, is potentially confusing since Catulli Carmina, with the words reversed, is part of Carl Orff’s Trionfo, the triptych of cantatas that famously includes Carmina Burana. Both Linton and Orff set poems by the influential and admired Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, who lived in the first century B.C. Linton, however, virtually ignores Orff’s precedent and offers here a cycle of seventeen songs that burst with bold originality.
Catullus expressed his own red-hot emotions of love, hate, lust, and anger, all in the starkest possible terms. Many of his impassioned declarations — usually addressed to his love, the irresistible yet perennially vexing Lesbia — have considerable contemporary resonance, such as “I can’t like you, not for the best you could be/ Nor cease to love you, not for the worst you could do.” Some are shockingly indecent. (One poem is, according to the notes, “infamous as the most obscene poem in any language”; reading the translation, this is not hard to believe.) Linton, who teaches music theory at Middle Tennessee State University, responds to the poetry with music of an eclectic but coherent and distinctive style, contemporary but otherworldly. His most conspicuous influence seems to be Messaien, but one number has hints of Kurt Weill, and he also quite effectively deploys Stravinsky-style primitivism. A couple of songs have a Fauré-like touch to the harmonies, and a sweet, direct lyricism that is startling amidst the surrounding modernism.
The second number, “Vivamus mea Lesbia,” actually sounds like the performer is in the middle of a particularly passionate act of love, with repeated cries of “vivamus” (“let us live”) and “amemus” (“let us love”) amid wild piano glisses, almost to the point of madness. The tumult is followed by remarkably harp-like sounds on the piano and a decidedly sated character to the vocal lines. Sometimes the piano parts deliberately contravene the message of the texts, as in “Nulli se dicit mulier,” which has an attractively rolling accompaniment, but whose subject is how deceitful women are, or “Pedicabo ego uos er irrumabo,” in which the poet flings vulgar insults at his detractors, amid music that is anthemic, triadic, and grand.
British baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer, a highly intelligent and versatile artist, sings with apparent full comprehension of the Latin texts, and pulls out a broad array of vocal colorings to illuminate the vivid moods of these unusual songs. He also has plenty of vocal power to unleash when called upon. There is, in fact, a lot of loud singing in these songs, but Crossley-Mercer has an appealingly viscous quality in his tone that wears well. Pianist Jason Paul Peterson is a full-fledged partner who exhibits thorough mastery of some fearsomely challenging music. Linton’s cycle is a personal and assertive reimagining of some timeless, emotionally and sexually charged poetry, and this is certainly its definitive performance.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.