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HEGGIE: “The Moon’s a Gong, Hung in the Wild”

CD Button Kirschlager; Lammerts van Buren, piano. Texts. Avie AV 2349

Recordings Heggie Songs Cover 216

THE BOOKLET THAT ACCOMPANIES this new all-Heggie CD refers to most of the sung words as "poetry" but refers to Gene Scheer's words for the song cycle Statuesque as "text." Presumably Scheer, who was the librettist for Heggie's opera Moby-Dick, wrote the words specifically to be set to music. Certainly the results are happier than many of the songs made from preexisting poetry. "Pablo Picasso: Head of a Woman" gives the mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirschlager two sides of a dialogue to perform, an opportunity she seizes gratefully, and the song "Winged Victory: We're Through" is the prize of the album, a Kurt Weill parody with real theatrical effect.

Elsewhere the songs are decidedly mixed. In a setting of Housman's "White in the Moon," poem and music are in accord; Heggie manages to keep Housman's rigidly metrical scheme from turning sing-songy. Three poems by Sister Helen Prejean (who is, of course, the heroine of Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking), on the other hand, aren't crying out for music. The third, in which an inmate on death row is eventually given a radio and is able to listen to music again, reserves the entrance of the piano for the moment the radio arrives. It makes sense in description, but in performance it's too much on the nose, and what a remarkable opportunity it would have been to keep the voice a cappella the whole time. A Raymond Carver setting in pop style makes a detour into Adam Guettel Lite for the middle section. The cycle Songs to the Moon (poetry by Vachel Lindsay) offers a real charmer in "The Haughty Snail-King," delivered with panache by Kirschlager, and the song should have a life of its own outside of the cycle, and in "What the Rattlesnake Said" Heggie offers a harmonic vocabulary of his own. But another of the songs, set as a jump-rope chant, fails to land.

The text booklet is necessary. It's hard to think of many albums of American music sung by native-German singers outside of Fischer–Dieskau's Ives LP. Kirschlager, like most Germans, can't pronounce "the" or "his" (which would be a catty comment were not American singers pilloried for such infractions in the German language). With Fischer–Dieskau, one at least senses that his small twists are more a coloring of the sheer sounds of the words. On the other hand, it should be noted that an American singer, Jennifer Larmore, can't quite put over all of the words in Heggie's effective setting of the folk song "Barb'ry Allen" either, so the composer might play some part in this equation. Classical singers always want to be cabaret singers and scat singers when they clearly are not. Heggie provides many such opportunities on this album, but Kirschlager, a treasurable artist elsewhere, shows that she too is not That Girl. —William R. Braun 

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