Coloratura Soprano Song Cycles
There isn't much in the legitimate art song repertoire that was specifically composed to exploit the special gifts of the coloratura soprano -- high notes, agility, trills, ornaments. Great composers of song cycles such as Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Mahler virtually ignored the coloratura sopranos. The superb lieder cycles they created dwell on complex, moody themes -- no place for the delicate femininity associated with high sopranos. These men may have written many compelling individual songs for light lyric voices that coloratura sopranos have adopted out of necessity, but none of these gentlemen composed anything notably florid or upwardly mobile.
The lissome Spanish composers would frequently call for a saucy touch or a plaintive lyricism that is well within the palette of coloratura sopranos, at least the ones with the flavor of cappuccino in their tone. Rodrigo's captivating Madrigales Amatorios, Obradors' Cinco Canciones Clasicas Espanolas, or Granados' colorful La Maja Dolorosa are beautiful, vibrant song cycles with some ornamental traceries, but they do not engage the full scope of the coloratura soprano's arsenal.
One might assume the Italians -- that great trio of bel canto maestros Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti who all composed songs in addition to opera -- wrote recital pieces for the soprano leggiero, but as with the German and Spanish composers, there is never more than a modest virtuosity asked for in only a few songs, and no song cycles. And don't look to the English or Russian composers either – a few individual songs about thrushes, larks, and nightingales aside, they have been equally neglectful.
Three Americans and a Pole have contributed to the fringes of this narrow repertoire, but there are really only three sets of songs for coloratura soprano that have entered the concert repertoire with any regularity -- Debussy's early Quatre Chansons de Jeunesse, Milhaud's Chansons du Ronsard, and Richard Strauss' Brentano Lieder are the mainstays of the coloratura song cycle repertoire. There are other ornate cycles to be found occasionally on recordings or in performance and certainly other elaborate art songs exist individually, but these three cycles are the core of the repertoire.
Let's begin this survey with the lone German. Richard Strauss was enamored of the high soprano voice, and he wrote for it often and in many contexts. He developed his own signature shimmering, modulating textures and vocal lines that challenge and accentuate coloratura skills. The Brentano Lieder (Op. 68) were written mid-career in 1918 after a 12-year lapse in songwriting during which he had composed many of his major operatic works (Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau Ohne Schatten).
The six songs for piano and voice to poems by Clemens Brentano were dedicated to the German soprano Elisabeth Schumann, and then orchestrated by Strauss in 1940/41 and rededicated variously to Adele Kern and Viorica Ursuleac. The songs are all high-lying and fluctuate between an airy, lyric delicacy ("Amor," "Ich wollt ein Strausslein binden," and "Sausle, liebe Myrte") and a soaring, passionate declamation ("An die Nacht," "Als mir dein Lied erklang," and "Lied der Frauen"). Even more interesting, the songs parallel the musical language Strauss created for a some of his major operatic characters:
Because the cycle embodies such a wide dynamic range, it is extremely challenging. Although ideal in the two Sophie-like songs, the outer extremes of this gallery strike me as being rather a stretch for Schumann; she was a beloved recitalist but not noted for her facility with very high coloratura (demanded in "Amor") and whose very small lyric sound would have been strained in the two larger-scaled songs. She never recorded any of the songs, and in fact, scholars conjecture that she may never have performed them at all. Similarly, I have unearthed no recordings by Kern or Ursulaec. As I survey the existing recordings of each cycle, I will first discuss complete studio versions chronologically, then look at singers captured live or who recorded excerpts or individual songs.
Erna Berger was the first to record the complete cycle with piano for DGG in the early 1950s, on a rare 10-inch disc with Michael Raucheisen accompanying. Five of them are available on a compact disc tribute set on the Acanta/Pilz Label (44-1037-2) -- the long, dramatic "Lied der Frauen" is omitted. They are deftly dispatched with Berger's typical reliability and charm. "Amor" could be woven of fine cotton threads, and the flower songs (#2 and #3) remind us why she was the reigning Sophie of her generation.
American soprano Rita Shane had an exhilarating dramatic coloratura voice that strikes me as the best solution to the challenges Strauss presents. Shane was rarely recorded commercially, but early in her career in 1970 she was selected to make the first full recording of cycle with orchestra. It is an uncommon record on the Louisville Orchestra's own First Edition label (LS 704), but also appeared in a compact disc compilation devoted to Shane on an independent label (Custom Opera CO-101), shockingly transferred a half-step flat in pitch. I recommend the LP version of the cycle with few reservations. Shane knows how to soar in Straussian exaltation in the powerful climaxes of the large pieces and her bronzed tone is plush throughout its ample range. "An die Nacht" is majestically phrased, and the coloratura of "Amor" is finessed effectively. Shane misses the hushed naiveté wanted in the two folksong-like flower settings (the "Strausslein" and "Myrte"); the sheer size and grandeur of her voice work against her best intentions. They are lovely, but not genuinely sincere.
Edda Moser was young and spry in 1972 and her recording with Erik Werba at the keyboard approaches the ideal in the first complete recording of the cycle in the original piano version (isn't it surprising to realize we had to wait more than 50 years for it?). The filigree of "Amor" is imaginatively and accurately delivered and the expanse of "Als mir dein Lied erklang" is bracing. Oddly, she shuffles the order of the songs so that the climax of "Lied der Frauen" comes third and then there is a gradual denouement that ends with the nimble "Amor." These songs were originally released on LP (EMI Electrola 29052) and have been included in a Edda Moser CD compilation set from EMI.
Edita Gruberova has encountered these songs in the studio four times at various stages in her career, but only once as the full cycle. The three florid songs ("Amor," "Ich wollte ein Strausslein binden," and "Sausle, liebe Myrte") first came in 1989 on Orfeo CD 66831 with Erik Werba as her accompanist. Then in 1991 for a Teldec CD devoted entirely to Strauss lieder (CD# 3984 267952) with her husband, Friedrich Haider at the piano, she included "Amor," "Strausslein," and "An die Nacht." Gruberova then sang the entire cycle with orchestra in Michael Tilson Thomas' recording (Sony SK48242) in 1994, programmed with Lucia Popp's Four Last Songs and Karita Mattila's Orchestral Songs. Gruberova was in fine voice in the complete set, although at certain times I find her slightly awkward and out of tune. in 2005, the Orfeo label released from the Salzburg archives a live August 1980 Gruberova lieder recital (Orfeo C635041B). I have not heard this one, but it does include the complete cycle recorded in her prime, with master Erik Werba at the piano, so expectations should be high. Her most recent recording is on the Nightingale Classics complete orchestral song collection released in 2000 (NC0072-2) where she sings four of the six, leaving two for Judith Howarth. Gruberova shows a slight darkening of tone but absolutely no diminishment in the coloratura figures. Overall there is an added depth of interpretive warmth to each of her contributions and her phrasing is smoother, her registers more even, her sensibility more natural. It is remarkable that just when one might imagine her international career and vocal resources would be winding down, she actually improves both technically and artistically. Judith Howarth is assigned "An die Nacht" and the penultimate "Lied der Frauen" and is marvelous in both. She displays a rich, resounding tone and dramatic conviction that captures the discrete kernel of emotion in each piece. Coloratura roles are in Howarth's repertoire -- I would like to hear what she would bring to the other ornate songs (although not at the expense of Gruberova's contributions here).
Magdelena Hajossyova is neither a coloratura soprano nor a dramatic soprano, but her flexible Slavic spinto is comfortable with the varying degrees of the cycle she recorded in 1987 on the Opus label (LP 9312 2062). She lightens her tone convincingly for the mellow nature songs and then builds it back up for the larger decrees. She is playful in "Amor," but it lacks glittering dazzle and a true trill.
Chandos' Strauss series recorded in 1993 for conductor Neeme Jarvi features Eileen Hulse, a young English coloratura soprano, in the Brentano Lieder (Chan 9166). It is a fine performance in some regards, not so in others. Hulse swells her winning tone to fill the crests of the cycle and conveys hushed lyricism in its quieter corners. "Amor" is managed well, the many ascensions and trills in alt are easy and pleasant, although it is a bit languidly paced by Mr. Jarvi. Hulse employs a technical mannerism of holding off vibrato and singing in a straight tone; this would be a welcome effect if used occasionally and judiciously, but it becomes so prevalent here (nearly every other phrase) that it distracts and annoys. Ultimately, the collection is earth-bound and doesn't inspire.
Caryn Hartglass was the first prize winner in a Canadian voice competition and was awarded a solo recital recording contract in 1995 (Ligia 0201033). She sings the complete cycle with piano. Her voice is often shrill, and somewhat clumsy in spots. She has not yet landed on the international operatic radar, but perhaps her artistry and technique have matured.
One of the newest additions to the complete Op.68 discography comes on the budget label (CD Naxos 8 570283) with soprano Ricarda Merbeth. Even though it is inexpensive, do not get this record. Merbeth's voice is big, metallic, and unwieldy and she is not comfortable in the lighter songs (and neither will you be). She pairs this cycle with Strauss' other great song set, the Four Last Songs, which are more appropriate for her dramatic voice-type (although those too are no where near the frontrank of recordings).
Diana Damrau's newest solo recital titled Poesie is all Strauss orchestral songs, conducted by Christian Thielemann (Virgin Classics 628664). She does the complete cycle, but oddly they are not presented that way on the CD, but intermixed through the program. Regardless, the material suits her like a glove with her silvery flexible soprano wafting effortlessly through the melismas and then a steely sheen helps to propel the bigger dramatic songs to life.
To avoid the "multiple vocal personality syndrome" conceived by Strauss in the six songs, most coloratura sopranos prefer to pull out the lightest pieces independently from the cycle. Julie Kauffmann recorded four of the lieder in her Orfeo compact disc recital (C305931) from 1993 with Irwin Gage at the piano. She omits #1 and #6, the serene "An die Nacht" and the frenetic "Lied der Frauen" (which seems to be the first to go due to its eight-minute length, if not its dramatic intensity). Kauffmann's rendering of the others is poised, stylish, and fulfilling. She partners the Strauss selections with songs by Debussy (discussed later) and Schoenberg's cycle Op.15 to create an enthralling program. [I should note that although Schoenberg explicitly calls for a high, light soprano for this cycle, it is for aural effect only; the music sticks almost exclusively to the middle register and requires no coloratura virtuosity.]
The delightful Erika Koeth sang the same four songs in a recital issued on Eurodisc LP S70975, probably in the mid-1960s. I have always felt a special attraction to Koeth's lambent, spinning tone. If it was occasionally unable to project in operatic roles and houses, it is marvelous for delicate lieder. Thankfully, her interpretative instincts are first-class, as well, and the songs are both spontaneous and precise. "Amor" is traced with elan, and the flower songs are genuine in sentiment and low in calories.
The four lightest songs (#1, #2, #3, and #5) were recorded by Kathleen Battle, two each on two different live recital programs for Deutsches-Grammophon (435440 & 445524). In her Carnegie Hall recital from 1991 "An die Nacht" is a noble and elegant ode to the mysteries of night. She is tested by "Amor," but ultimately passes the live exam proving she has the notes, the trills, and the smiling touch for the song. Battle's angelic timbre and coy manner ideally match the inward-looking #2 and #3 in her youthful Salzburg recital from 1985 with James Levine.
It was probably inevitable that the world's reigning coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay would record some of these songs as she began to run out of material to issue. For her all-Strauss recital on Virgin Classics in 2004 -- titled "Amor," she chose four Brentano songs (#2, #3, #4, and #5). I'm sorry to report the record is a disappointment; Dessay was experiencing some vocal and health problems around this timeframe and you can hear the instability in her voice. Stylistically she is off the mark, with some dreadful deliberate slurring effects in Amor.
Roberta Peters sings half of the cycle on a recital LP from 1973 for BASF (MB-20799). Knowing Peters' slight vocal endowment, one anticipates the light "Amor" would be the most successful, and it is, although a bit fussy and over-articulated. The other songs consist of magical, suspended moments disrupted by shrill, pinched phrases that plunge us disappointingly back to earth. Peters actually recorded "Amor" three times -- in addition to the BASF recording, there are two separate versions that were made early in her career. In what may have been her very first record for RCA -- an early audiophile record from 1954 titled An Adventure in High Fidelity (LM 1802) -- Peters sings it with Leo Rosenek at the piano. It appeared again in her 1960 recital program with her (then) regular accompanist, George Trovillo, also for RCA (LSC-2379). Both versions are inviting and to be preferred as freer and more naively captivating than the later 1973 rendition.
Judith Blegen sang the three lightest on her 1976 RCA LP recital (ARL1-1571) with Martin Katz accompanying. Her intimate voice is beautifully captured with gorgeous overtones in the uppermost range. Blegen's fluid phrasing of the difficult wide leaps in "Sausle, liebe Myrte" has yet to be matched. Her voice seems to me the closest to Schumann's: I hear a similar heady, adolescent timbre and vivacious, unmannered enunciation. Blegen has no problems with the daunting obstacles of "Amor," so perhaps Elisabeth Schumann didn't either. In fact, Blegen's trills on high are remarkable.
"Amor" is really the showiest song of the cycle. It is incredibly challenging for the vocalist: wide intervals, many trills (with two on high B and high C), repeated swift and intricate cascades of notes, sudden harmonic modulations, and a casual top D. It is not surprising therefore to see it has been frequently recorded independently by many ambitious sopranos. Rita Streich pairs it with "An die Nacht" on a DG compact disc collection (437-680-2) in a sweet, accomplished rendition that seems a bit drowsy and unenergized. Unfortunately her diction is not alert and tempi sag.
Yvonne Kenny combined #5 with #2 and a few other Strauss lieder in her recital from Wigmore Hall in 1984 released on LP and compact disc by Etcetera. Kenny's is an extremely accessible lyric soprano with a generous upper extension so her offerings have a fullness of tone that is often absent from the smaller-voiced singers, while losing nothing in agility and bloom for "Amor."
The Chinese artist called Dilber chose the same two songs as Kenny to include in her 1997 Vocalise recital on an Ondine compact disc (890-2), but the singer is uncomfortable in the art song genre. "Amor" especially taxes her -- the trills are not well formed and her consonants are comically over-emphatic.
Heidi Grant Murphy sampled the same two songs from the cycle to include in her recital with piano recorded in 2000, Clearings in the Sky. These and a few other Strauss songs are contrasted with French and Russian selections. Her feather-textured voice and intelligent musical mind are very persuasive in both the cavorting of "Amor" and the sauntering of "Ich wollte ein Strausslein binden."
Beverly Sills may have made the definitive commercial recording of the orchestrated version of #5 in 1970 for her Mozart and Strauss recital with Aldo Ceccato conducting the London Philharmonic. The recital was released on compact disc by EMI; it is currently out-of-print but "Amor" is included on the Sills installment of Decca's recent The Singers series. She gambols up and down the billowing ruffles of the song with a most engaging and natural lightness of touch, as if en pointe. Private recordings circulate of her live performances of the piano version, as well, which she programmed often in her recital tours.
I highly recommend a rather unknown soprano Eileen Di Tullio who breezes through "Amor" in a recording that is taken from a live recital (likely in the 1960s) and compiled on a compact disc issued by Legato Classics (LCD 196). I hear a glistening tone and winsome approach similar to that of Sills, although Di Tullio makes her own distinct impression.
Several lyric sopranos have made studio recordings of two or three of the other songs, side-stepping the tricky "Amor." Hilde Gueden and Soile Isokoski star in all-Strauss recital discs, recorded almost 50 years apart, that feature the same three middle Brentano songs: #2, #3, and #4. Gueden's 1956 recording appeared on LP for London/Decca (London LL 1591) and has seen the digital light only in a hard-to-find Japanese CD reissue (London POCL-4400). It displays her notably Viennese style marked by an ample, round "held" tone that at times slips and slides from phrase to phrase. Gueden in her prime (as she was here) would seem an ideal Brentano soprano -- early on as a hoch-sopran she sang Strauss' high, acrobatic roles like Zerbinetta and Sophie and then moved into his more vocally robust ladies like Arabella and Daphne. Isokoski stretches to reach the highest peaks of "Sausle, liebe Myrte," but is most definitely worth seeking out for her graceful style and breathtakingly beautiful tone. Her Four Last Songs are the centerpiece of this recital (Ondine ODE 982-2) and she is one of that legendary cycle's best-ever interpreters.
Sopranos who have left documents of the two flower songs (#2 and #3) include Britt-Marie Ahrun, Dinah Bryant, Lisa Della Casa, Margerita Hallin, Barbara Hendricks, and Julia Varady. All provide pleasure enough, but a special plug must be given to the lesser-known Hallin, a Swedish soprano who did the unthinkable and successfully sang the grand scenes of both Zerbinetta and Salome on the same 1972 LP recital. I'm sure there are other recordings of various songs orphaned from the Brentano cycle -- Felicity Lott for example just included #2 on her Strauss Lieder disc for Hyperion. I also have live dubs of Natalie Dessay, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Reri Grist, and Diana Damrau presenting "Amor" in recital beautifully. According to one source, Katherine Arkandy sang "Amor" exquisitely in a rare 1919 recording for Polydor. I would love to find a transfer of that old shellac disc some day.
Darius Milhaud's cycle of four songs Chansons de Ronsard was commissioned in 1941 by Lily Pons, his compatriot. Written for Pons' particular sensibility, they are naturally very light both in orchestration and overall conception. In fact, like Pons' voice, I find the character of the music too saccharine-sweet to stand up to repeated listening, although I would be ecstatic to encounter it in a live recital. The first song is a casual andante titled "A une fontaine" that is a tribute to a meandering spring. The second, "A Cupidon," is an ode to the pangs of Cupid's love -- a slow, elegant melody with several very high suspensions, optionally up to D. Next comes "Tais-toi, babillarde," a very short, very fast bird song chastising a chattering swallow; a rush of babbling words and lithe vocalise that is capped by an optional high E. The final song, "Dieu vous garde" is a cloying litany of well wishes to springtime birds, flowers, butterflies, and bees.
Lily Pons premiered the pieces in 1941 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, then recorded them for Columbia in 1947 with her husband Andre Kostelanetz conducting and they have been released several times over the years, the latest is Sony CD 60655. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that the cycle is titled Les Amours de Ronsard and that the songs are placed in a slightly different order: she is the only singer to have made this shuffle, perhaps seeing it as her prerogative. "Dieu vous garde" is moved into the second position so that the cycle closes with the showy bird-like "chatter" song. Pons' reading is surprisingly weak for a creator's record. It is vocally careless, shaped with lazy diction, and rife with Pons' bad habits of scooping and aspirating coloratura. More distressing, she is totally detached and dull; there is no life in the phrasing, no grace, no emotion -- very little expression at all.
In the 55 years since Pons' idiomatic if disappointing recording, few sopranos have added to the cycle's discography. Rita Streich's version in a piano reduction (on the same compact disc compilation as the Strauss songs, with the ubiquitous Erik Werba) shows her voice at its loveliest. There is no need for her to push her tiny instrument beyond its comfort level, a problem that mars so many of her operatic recordings, so it can just float purely and easily into the acoustics of the room. The top D that crowns "A Cupidon" is one of her most beautiful notes; it has a halo-like glow. The chatterbox song is taken at a sensible tempo; she skips the high E ending. She manages to be sweet but not too syrupy.
French soprano Janine Micheau is remembered for her versatility, singing both lyric and coloratura roles with equal success. She was a good friend of Milhaud's and one of his inspirations: she premiered Creuse in his opera Medee, and ten years later he wrote a role for her in Bolivar. She recorded the Ronsard cycle in 1956 with Milhaud himself conducting (rather dully) a entire disc devoted to his vocal music for soprano. Not yet available on compact disc, the LP version was issued on EMI References C051-73075. Micheau approaches the songs with a fair blending of sincerity and virtuosity, but she seems uncomfortable sustaining the high tessitura. She has to drop off longer notes a bit early, or they seem to thin out and lose support. The high D climax of the second song is omitted, as is the high E in the bird song. That this is her most effective song, however, may be because of its speedy coloratura where her lack of consistent support is not apparent.
This cycle was also recorded by the Louisville Orchestra and issued on their First Edition label (LS 744) in 1974, and in a more commercial LP release as RCA GL 25020. The soloist was Paula Seibel, a native New Yorker who has a very chaste, girlish timbre and an eiderdown tone. It is a sweet, simple, pastoral interpretation that is extremely accurate, perhaps too much so that it becomes careful and cautious. The notes to the album inform us that she sang the cycle for a special event to honor the composer at the Spoleto Festival.
American Beverly Hoch's 1985 version (MCA Classics CD 25966) is frothy and sweet, very much in the Pons mold, although much more accurately sung. Hoch takes all the high options with ease. She sustains a graceful, pointed line in the second song to Cupid, but, like Pons, I think her overall interpretation too sugary for frequent relistening.
Caryn Hartglass is not as lost in this cycle as she was in the Strauss Brentano Lieder discussed earlier. Even so, she does not have the innate beauty of tone to make the songs work on the only level they really can -- lovely, quaint warbling on high.
The latest addition to the cycle's discography is from Patrice Michaels, a Chicago-based singer and the prima donna assoluta of Cedille Records, which has recorded her in a wide variety of uncommon concert and operatic repertoire. Released in the summer of 2003, the CD entitled Le vie est une Parade (Cedille 070) is a collection of French songs and cycles (Britten's Les Illuminations rubs shoulders with Satie and Tailleferre). I have not heard Michaels' Ronsard songs yet, but I am surprised she chose them because she is not a coloratura soprano. Previous recordings show a high-ish, light-ish lyric voice that is fairly agile, but that takes on a bothersome pinched character above the stave. Access to notes around high B and C are made through hyper-pressurizing the tone and odd vowel modifications. But she has a communicative energy that can make up for these flaws, so the jury remains out.
Karen Smith Emerson pulled out "Tais-toi, babillarde" from the cycle for her 1994 collection of Audubon-themed songs (Centaur CRC 2232). This is a dream collection of songs because it contains bravura chestnuts ("La Capinera" by Benedict, "Charmant Oiseau" by David, and Alabieff's "Russian Nightingale") along with uncommon bird song compositions of a more serious nature by Grieg, Brahms, Hahn, Gliere, Britten, Rorem, and John Duke, among others. It is a shame that Smith Emerson's voice isn't more inherently beautiful and bird-like. The highest notes ring smartly, but the upper and middle registers are edgy and coarse. The Milhaud chatter song suffers from poor articulation of the brisk patter, and her cadenzas are rough-hewn. There is a big, well-placed high E at the finish, but the basic tone throughout is stiff.
Private tapes circulate of other sopranos performing the Milhaud songs live, all with piano accompaniment. Beverly Sills programmed them often in the early 1970s as they were an ideal fit for her effervescent gifts (and Pons was her early idol). She sings them incomparably, smiling subtly through the poetic sentiments, reveling in the melodic arcs, and perching forever on the high pianissimo suspensions.
Judith Blegen sang the cycle for almost 15 years and her performance from a broadcast of a Vienna recital in 1982 is effective. She has a sense of joie de vivre throughout -- there is pastel coloring, fine diction, and an eggshell delicacy to her timbre that is enticing. She passes on the two highest optional notes, as she also did in an earlier 1974 recital taping.
There is a rare private LP of Chloe Owen singing them in Boston in 1968. Although she chooses all the highest options (and actually sustains the final high E in the chatter song that others either cut or glide), hers is not a natural coloratura voice. The top sails out, but Owen's middle voice is svelte and chilly, and takes on a cloudy white coloring. She sings proficiently, but the music doesn't play and float as it might.
Mattiwilda Dobbs extracted "Tais-toi Babillarde" for a Sydney recital in 1959. A rare private recording of that performance confirms that she was as good as one would suspect and reaffirms the longing that she could have made many more commercial recordings.
While still a student at the Paris Conservatoire in the early 1880s, Claude Debussy wrote many songs for Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a well-trained amateur soprano who infatuated him. She was married to a much older architect and the couple welcomed the teenaged composer into their home in Paris to compose, almost on a daily basis. Achille, as he was known then, wrote at least 23 songs for her, but the majority we know are from the Vasnier Songbook that he dedicated to her "melodious fairy mouth" because "they lived only through her." Debussy had presented this recueil of 13 songs to Mme. Vasnier when he left to visit Rome for two years. They were held privately and remained essentially unknown until four were published posthumously in 1926 as Quatre Chansons de Jeunesse.
Debussy considered an order for the 13 songs when he presented them to Vasnier, but as these four particular songs were extracted from the set by an editor, they cannot truthfully be called a self-contained song cycle; perhaps a more accurate term would be a song grouping. It is a set frequently chosen by high sopranos for an impressive French segment in a recital and many recordings exits. The many other Vasnier songs are much less commonly performed or recorded (a few remain unheard to this day) but in the past five years there has been an uptick in interest for this portion of Debussy's output with entire CD recitals by Dawn Upshaw, Donna Brown, and Gillian Keith devoted to his youthful melodies. Unlike the Strauss and Milhaud which exist in both orchestral and piano versions, the Debussy pieces were never orchestrated -- his piano writing is so original and evocative, it is hardly necessary.
Although the songs are early Debussy, before his reliance on whole tone scales and mixed chordal structures, they are immediately recognizable for his unique French impressionist imprint. Because they are very accessible, melodic, and at times sentimental, serious critics tend to dismiss them as pseudo-Gounod and mock-Massenet, but there is sophistication in the musical themes and vocal lines and a distinctly Debussy finesse to the collection. The tessitura rides very high for all four songs, hovering often on high B and climaxing twice on high C, and there are trills and melismas throughout two of them. "Pantomime" is a pirouetting portrait of French stock comedy characters: Pierrot, Cassandre, Harlequin, and Columbine, from the poem by Verlaine. De Banville's "Pierrot" is of the same ilk both textually and musically, mischievously demanding high coloratura figures to depict the playful, frisky clowns. The other two songs make a matched set of sorts at the other end of the emotional and musical spectrum. Debussy set Verlaine's pensive "Clair de lune" twice, this first version soars with luxuriant melancholy. The bittersweet "Apparition" of Stephane Mallarme has the quality of a soft-focus yet ardent dream, perfectly appropriate for the somber romantic recollections of the poem.
One of the most reliable and versatile sopranos of the 20th century was the German soprano Erna Berger. She was way ahead of her time in her choice of repertoire; one would expect her to sing the Brentano Lieder already discussed, but the Debussy chansons are an unusual item for a German soprano at all, let alone for her to issue the first complete recording of the set. They are included on the Pilz compact disc set mentioned earlier, and were originally released in the 1940s on Urania LP 7060. Berger's faultless technique lends them her trademark silver-pure tone, crystal-clear diction, and absolute fidelity to the score. She interprets "Pantomime" and "Pierrot" in a more serious, ironic light. This allows less contrast with the two romances, but has the unusual effect of unifying all four pieces into a single musical gesture. Berger's interpretation more than any other would convince that these four songs were written as a discrete cycle. As skilled as Berger is, there is still a nagging suspicion throughout these songs that something is missing -- perhaps it is just that ever-so-faint scent of French perfume that should be left lingering in the mind after the turntable has stopped spinning.
The second recording arrived in 1957, the first by a French soprano: Janine Micheau. This was an all-Debussy recital LP on EMI (C053-10016) with Aldo Ciccolini as her star accompanist. It is available on CD, but not as a single Micheau release; it is one disc in a 4-disc set (EMI 5-73595-2) focused on "les introuvables" of the well-known pianist. The $28 price for the set may seem like a lot to spend if you are not a collector of solo piano works, but there are 18 melodies by Micheau (most of them early Vasnier songs), and the LP issue is very rare and sells for about the same when it does show up on a dealer's list. That said, I'm not sure I'd recommend the expenditure to anyone who isn't an avid Micheau fan or Debussy completist. The idea of Micheau tackling these songs in her prime is much better than the reality of the recording she left us of the feat. She was a lyric-coloratura soprano, known for her success in core French leggiere and lyric roles. Perhaps by 1957 she was too far over on the lyric side of the fence -- she doesn't seem comfortable in the high-flying antics of the two burlesque songs. "Pantomime" is rushed and poorly tuned with unsupported high notes, and "Pierrot" seems mostly skimmed over (and the missing trills are a drawback). Micheau is better in the surging lyric songs where her charming, tart voice can be the star. The tempo and phrasing in "Claire de lune" seem rigidly pedestrian-- devoid of the subtle note-to-note pulls that create an expressive musical line. There are lapses where she just sounds unconnected to what she is singing: the opening section of "Apparition," for example, passes by unnoticed, and the potentially poignant phrase "au chapeau de clarte" is blasé. If Micheau's performance was the only recording available, it would do, but with so much competition, it doesn't. Ciccolini, by the way, is brilliantly precise, romantic and playful when appropriate.
Pierrette Alarie is lighter than air in her recording from the early 1960s for Westminster (LP WGM 8316). In fact, she may be just a bit too light. The tone is as fragile as finely blown glass, which bestows lovely moments in the high leaps, especially the repeated soft Bs that conclude "Pantomime." However, "Apparition" and "Clair de lune" are held back at times for want of a more voluptuous middle voice. Alarie is French-Canadian, so the words are caressed authentically, and the melodies phrased apropos. One of many memorable moments is the manner in which Alarie flirtatiously tosses off the high inflection on the phrase "jette un regard de son oeil en coulisse in Pierrot" -- she captures vocally the sideways glance described by de Banville.
French soprano Mady Mesple recorded about ten of the Vasnier pieces in the mid-1970's, released as part of EMI's Debussy songbook on four compact discs in 1992 (EMI 64095). Mesple is not a singer I am drawn to due to her astringent intonation, though she is more effective in a low-key art song recital setting than she is in grand opera. Whereas her voice turns acerbic when trying to scale the orchestra as dramatic stage heroines, it has a sweeter nature when kept introspective with only a piano as partner. And yet there is little to recommend in her impenetrable rendition of Debussy's songs, when so many others offer a spectrum of expressive shades. For a native French speaker, her diction is mushy and uncommunicative, and I hear some especially ugly vowel sounds. The two harlequin songs twirl and tease with pointed precision, but her whirring vibrato cloys relentlessly. The two lyric songs simply lack substance. Her tight voice remains too shallow in texture to bring warmth to the music; it wants more sway, more roundness, more pathos. "Apparition" is lame for many reasons, not the least of which is that the high climax is screeched and acrid.
In addition to an appealing but essentially unfinished soprano, Erika Radermacher also plays the piano. The program of a very unusual German 2-LP set called Duette (Jecklin Disco 537/8) from 1975 becomes a very curious collection of art songs and piano duets with what appears from the intimate photo on the album cover to be her boyfriend, Urs Peter Schneider. Composers represented span the entire history of Western music from Byrd to Cage. Schneider accompanies Radermacher's vocalizing in the Debussy set with some clumsiness in transitions, but no more than she displays herself. Debussy requires a romantic Gallic sensuality, and this pair of Teutonic performers is out of their stylistic comfort zone. They are more successful in the sparse polyphonic pieces and modern works.
On a very hard-to-find LP from Radio Canada International (RCI 463) is a Faure and Debussy recital by Colette Boky recorded in 1977. Boky was a star in the 1970s and 80s, singing many leading roles at the Met (including Lucia and Gilda) and all over North America. These songs fit her like a glove and show her to be a first-rate recitalist. It is a lovely, warm, vibrant voice that drapes the melodies with colour. Being a native French speaker (she is French-Canadian) adds a marvelous touch of authenticity to her phrasing, and the range is just right for her. High notes are buoyant and easy, while low notes have tonal wealth, with a particular luxuriousness in the middle register.
Edita Gruberova brings distinctive flair and a world-class instrument to her recording, made early in her career with Haider at the Boesendorfer (LP released in 1985 as CBS 42002). They chose a very fast tempo for the two songs about the clowns, and Gruberova approaches them playfully, with a sunny tone, articulate diction, and a show-stopping panache. Her silver point-of-light suspension on the words "Columbine reve" is just one of several memorable effects (caveat: the trills should have more spring). In effective contrast, Haider allows Gruberova swelling rubato for the two slower romances. She darkens and warms her timbre for a dreamy "Clair de lune," but still one wishes there was more calme and triste in her singing of the final phrases. "Apparition" is the highlight of the set, with provocative word painting such as a passing smile on "premier baiser." The difficult-to-approach high C is ideally wedded to the musical line and the emotional climax it should be. We are left with a stunning close: the finely fragrant words "d'etoiles parfumees."
In 1985 Anne-Marie Rodde was the first to record most of the many Vasnier songs (Etcetera CD KTC 1026) with Noel Lee as her collaborator (although the notes wrongly credit this as being the first recording of several songs that were done earlier by Pons, Boky, and Peters). Rodde's voice is a small jewelry box: delicate drawers open on certain phrases to reveal facets of tone that sparkle when they catch the light. Her utterly lovely, glowing middle register is very reminiscent of the beloved Elly Ameling's and is ideally weighted for these songs. So perfectly unassuming is Rodde's manner and technique here, one imagines hearing echoes of Mme. Vasnier. Following Gruberova, one wishes Rodde were less emotionally detached -- the commedia pieces want more caprice, the romances more shadow. I must point out that Lee's keyboard weaves a sublime atmosphere from nearly undetectable individual notes; he thoroughly captures Debussy's impressionistic style. Rodde presents the songs in a different order from the standard grouping.
I only recently stumbled upon a CD recital of Maria Venuti on Eurodisc CD 260687, issued in 1990. Venuti is an American soprano who has held a career primarily in Germany and Vienna, although she's appeared in many houses and concert halls all over the world. She is rarely found on record (as Papagena in the Colin Davis Magic Flute and as the bravura Seraph in Rillings' take on Beethoven's Christus am Olberge). The recital presents her in four languages: songs by Wolf-Ferrari, Wolf, Barber, and Debussy. I was neither immediately taken in nor repelled by a first or second listen, but her voice and interpretation have grown on me with repeated listening. Each time a song passes by, I hear a subtle detail of dynamics or inflection I hadn't quite caught earlier. Her tonal quality is beautiful -- a human sound that seems to share a secret promise. It has a classy urbane aura, like brushed stainless steel. The tempos are quite a bit slower than normally paced, but they don't drag -- instead they have a sophisticated sultriness. "Clair du lune" is particularly slow (several notches down from the indicated andantino), but it works due to Venuti's poetic phrasing and languid vocal suspensions throughout her range. "Pierrot" and "Pantomine" are clean and engaging, but not dazzling. "Apparition" closes the CD on a pinnacle -- it affirms the noble texture of Venuti's vocal cloth, from a beguiling lower register to hushed highs. The song leaves no doubt about her enticing musical mind, and is a wonderful addition to the discography.
Benita Valente's compact disc of Faure and Debussy songs (Centaur 2220) was recorded in 1989, but not released until 1995. Her voice has a poised, sumptuous, airy spin to it that serves the mood of the pieces perfectly. She was never a coloratura soprano -- she specialized in borderline high lyric roles that require flexibility -- but as these songs only go to high C, acuti are not a requirement and she has no problems with the range. Her tone in all her registers is shimmery and silky, with a special glimmer on high. Stylistically she doesn't over-interpret the songs, and lets the melodies and words play freely through her voice. Although nonchalant, Valente never comes across as emotionally detached. The overall effect of this approach is one of compelling mystery.
Julie Kauffmann (on the same Orfeo compact disc that includes the Strauss lieder) is excellent in a very modern approach that may not be for all tastes. There is no question that her voice is always beautiful here, plangent, supple, and appealing. However, she uses it almost instrumentally: vocal effects underline certain phrases or lift others for special emphasis. She will elide notes together with an almost crooned portamento, or she will occasionally bend a pitch in passing. Kauffmann holds back her vibrato on some short transitional notes to interesting effect, but the same technique used on sustained climaxes exposes a faint but unsettling beat in the tone. These vocal mannerisms are very subtle and give the reading a spontaneity that is engaging, but when one listens over and over to the music, they can become distracting.
I found Soo Yeon Kim's independently released 1999 recital CD while surfing the Internet (Independent Concert Artists, ICA 699). Called Romantic Songs, it features Kevin Class using the piano to partner with her in these songs and others by Rossini, Strauss, and Rodrigo. The first sentence of the album notes claim Kim "is without a doubt one of the leading talents of her generation." Listening to her sing proves this to be the hyperbole one suspected. She is merely adequate, rising just a notch above a mediocre professionalism. I might appreciate this performance in a local community recital setting, but on disc its lack of real quality and inspiration is glaringly apparent. She has occasional pitch problems, phrasing stumbles, and a sound that, frankly, is too reminiscent of the vibrato-victimized Mesple for my disposition.
Canadian soprano Donna Brown recorded 21 of Debussy's Melodies de Jeunesse, as the CD is titled, in 1999 and 2000. On the ATMA Classique label (ACD2-2209), Stephane Lemelin is the pianist. The songs are grouped by poet, so the four under discussion are spread out over the CD. A saucy "Pantomime" is first up; Brown has point and poise, and the right weight and grain of voice for this music. The dreamy Andante section is especially honeyed, but her return to the coloratura dances unfortunately becomes edgy and she flats the final pitch. "Claire de lune" is handsome, and she approaches it like a sweet lullaby, with minor melancholy underpinnings. "Pierrot" is paced very quickly; Brown easily handles the tangled filigree at this tempo, even her trills register fully. I like the opening of "Apparition," with its gentle mood setting, but the big peaks of the song don't fully throb, and the ending wants more bittersweet pigments. These few picky critical points are easy to overlook, however, and should not prevent the CD from taking a place in every vocal music collector's library. Brown is a very credible and effective stand-in for Debussy's muse in his Vasnier songs.
Juliane Banse is an American lyric soprano with a velvety, mysterious sound and a personal way of drawing the listener right into the core of each song. Her CD (ECM 1772) released in 2003 but recorded in January 2001, offers three Debussy song cycles alternating with a sampling of lieder by Mozart. With celebrity pianist Andras Schiff at her side, Banse has recorded what may be the richest, most evocative take on these songs. "Clair de lune" begins with a beautifully painted calm, then slowly builds to powerful yet holistic climaxes. Every phrase is given value, yet Banse never overacts the sentiments. "Pierrot" is programmed as her first florid song; it is rather startling to hear such a seemingly large voice prance around so easily in this near-stratospheric tessitura. The tempo is easy-going, the trills in place, and even the short wispy phrases are fully sung. "Apparition," the most passionate of the four songs, gets a deluxe treatment. Banse draws us in very slowly, tracing a smooth broad arc from the soft low-wattage opening measures to the highly charged grand apex and then tapering down again to a beguilingly dim close. During this expansive journey, her phrasing is always liquid at (and between) each dynamic extreme. She isn't afraid to be big and bold, and it pays off abundantly. "Pantomime" is the last song for her -- although very well sung, it feels a little too careful. The energy and tempo are under-amped, but her skillful maneuvering on the highwire inspires wonder. Even with this qualified finish, Banse has set the bar very high with this recording. It's one of my favorites.
The most recent recording of the Quatre Chansons de Jeunesse is from young Kathleen Ferrier Award winner, Gillian Keith. The English label Deux-Elles (DXL1052) captured the Canadian soprano in Bristol in December 2001, then issued the CD commercially in late 2003. Her young, deft accompanist is Simon Lepper. This entire CD devoted to 26 of Debussy's "Early Songs" is welcome because it provides vital first or second recordings of several songs from this era of Debussy's output. Keith's voice can immediately be tagged as youthful -- a bright, pure, unsoiled tone and an exuberance of delivery are the plusses, but a somewhat superficial interpretation and an unseasoned artistry are slight drawbacks. "Pantomime" and "Pierrot" are the stars of Keith's set: so sprightly and coy in character. The ending of "Pantomime" on the repeated high Bs is flawless, but the top peaks of "Pierrot" are too spiky (on the phrase "En vain l'agace de son oeil coquin," for example). The depths of feeling wanted for "Apparition" and "Clair de lune" are where Keith comes up shy. Both songs are accurate, direct, and sure-handed, but her inaudible lower register leaves big holes in the line when the melodies dip down and the tempos don't feel elastic enough. She isn't really feverish, as instructed at the first key change in "Apparition." Her high tones are pretty, but if her pianissimo's were more hushed, they would be more effective. For a large sampling of Debussy's Vasnier songs, I'd recommend the CD: the sum of its parts is considerable.
There are a few other soprano who have recorded most or some of the four songs. In an era of "dumbing down" nearly all types of classical music, Dawn Upshaw has managed to position herself as this decade's premier art song interpreter. Her Debussy collection called Forgotten Songs (Sony SK67190) is one of her better efforts and includes 12 songs from Recueil Vasnier (the original 13 song collection; why she left the 13th song off is not clear), two of which are "Pantomime" and "Clair de lune." Like Valente, she is not a coloratura soprano, and although she has notes in alt when she occasionally needs them, they are usually pushed beyond anything resembling attractive. In the Debussy pieces, with perfect accompaniment by James Levine, the high notes are not pressurized and emerge light, bright, and clear. Upshaw can be a chronic over-interpreter by too deliberately phrasing every centimeter of a song, yet she brings some deep and intelligent nuances to the two songs being surveyed here.
The BASF LP of Roberta Peters doing only three of them (all except "Pantomime") in 1973 is one I don't recommend because her tone is too brittle to convey any subtleties. She also sang "Apparition" in the previously mentioned 1960 RCA recital program (included on the RCA Voices in Living Stereo compact disc collection RCA 68167). This performance exposes Peter's significant weaknesses: a malnourished middle register, tone that bottles up at forte and thins tautly in pianissimo, and a disconnected, vinegar-white top. Although short, the climactic high C at "et j'ai cru voir la fee" sours and spoils the line badly.
There is a rare Columbia 10" record (ML 2135) of Lily Pons singing Debussy songs recorded in 1950 with Frank La Forge's accompaniment. It features only two of these four chansons, "Pierrot" and "Apparition." She sings in a tone that is wafer-thin and eggshell-fragile, and sounds old-fashioned in manners. If she fails to convey much of the power and mood of the songs, there are some pretty moments of suspended feathery high notes.
Elisabeth Vidal, a rising soprano from France who studied at the Paris Opera, can claim birth rights to French coloratura operatic and concert music, and she has sung it to acclaim all over the world. Her 1994 compact disc recital (Auvdis Valois V4707) titled Romances et Chants d'Oiseau includes eight early Debussy songs, one of which is "Pierrot." Vidal's creamy, plangent tones are bettered by her delectable diction to make hers a winning contribution.
Nadia Tzvetkova, a contemporary Bulgarian coloratura who has settled in France, includes "Pierrot" in a vanity compact disc Portrait available only as an obscure import. The recording is poorly engineered; her competent voice is distant and over-miked.
"Apparition" seems to be the most admired song in the grouping; critics think it the most sophisticated and forward-looking toward the master-Debussy to come. Though it is demanding, it is not as intricate or as rangy as the other three. Carol Loverde's art song program on the Centaur label exposes an ungainly voice, incapable of floating or phrasing with beauty. Her rendition of "Apparition" is not recommended. Neither is Renee Fleming's in her Night Songs CD recital. Her admittedly handsome voice is voluptuous to a fault in her overly arch and oddly operatic version. On the other hand, Sandrine Piau achieves an ideal rendering on her all-Debussy recital (Naïve V4932). It is the case of a sweet yet tremendously expressive voice perfectly scaled in weight and tone to polish the song's shine.
As a final note: in my own personal concert going experience, I heard only Heidi Grant Murphy perform them, in New York. She was charming and bright-voiced, although there was a nervous tendency to sharp. I have also come across positive reviews of recent recital programs that included them given by Jennifer Smith, superstar Sumi Jo, and alluring American soprano Elizabeth Futral.
There are two recordings that I want to point out that I have not been able to evaluate. Ria Ginster recorded "Clair de lune" in the 1920s, and it has been reissued on the a two CD set of her art on the Preiser label. Quite recently Christiane Oelze included "Pierrot" on her Spanish flavored songs CD for Berlin titled Las Locas por amor.
All of the Vasnier songs are appropriate for high sopranos. Three to look for that are particularly coloratura-centric are "La Romance d'Ariel," "Coquetterie posthume," and the exotically-seasoned but conventional "Rondel Chinois." They are variously included in the Debussy compact disc recitals of Upshaw, Rodde, Vidal, Brown, Keith, and Mesple, as well as on Peters' BASF LP and Pons' 10" Columbia LP.
There are a five other sets of songs for coloratura soprano that I want to mention, although they are by no means as well known as the Strauss, Milhaud, and Debussy. They would make up a sort of second tier of coloratura song cycles, even farther down the path of adventurous programming for soprano.
Polish composer Karol Szymanowski wrote a cycle of six songs in 1915 for coloratura soprano titled Songs for a Fairy-Tale Princess (Op. 31) while staying at his family's estate. The lyrics were written at his request by his sister Zofia and it is suspected that his other sister Stasia was the inspiration for the high-lying florid writing (she premiered the role of Roxana in his opera King Roger, in 1926 Warsaw). Apparently only three of the songs were orchestrated by the composer in 1933 and debuted then in that form by Ewa Bandrowska-Turska. I have a few records of hers, but none of the Princess songs. The cycle is pseudo-impressionistic in style, composed in a period of transition for Szymanowski from more conventional German-Romantic tonality and structures to a freer musical framework influenced by French and Arabic themes. The flavors and rhythms of the Orient are reminiscent of Strawinsky's music for his opera The Nightingale, which Szymanowski heard and admired in London in 1914. The second of the six songs is indeed titled "The Nightingale." Vocal flourishes, runs, and trills punctuate most of the songs, peaking frequently on high C-sharp.
I've heard six sopranos sing all or some of the cycle, all quite different from each other. The best overall complete version is the most recent: Claudia Barainsky recorded the set in Polish in its original state with piano for the Orfeo label in 1999, part of an entire recital disc of Szymanowski's lieder (C-480-981). It is a healthy voice with ping and presence and one that seems a good match for the music. Often times she is right on, deft and intriguing, but at others she slurs phrases or over sings. The entire cycle sounds somewhat monochromatic, each song reminding one too much of the one before it. Dorothy Dorow sang the entire set with piano in 1983, but in French (Etcetera KTC 1090). Dorow runs into trouble throughout, her voice is not well blended and her trills can be especially ungainly. The languid fifth song "Song of the Wave" is the only one that I feel offers any musical value. Her crude takes on the fourth and last songs are excruciatingly unpleasant. Jadwiga Gadulanka's 1989 recording with orchestra includes all six songs (it is not clear who orchestrated the additional songs). It has been issued on the Naxos label (8.553688) conducted by Karol Stryja (perhaps he is also the uncredited arranger). Moments of vocal beauty amount to a few admirably suspended soft notes, but these are counteracted by others that are strident and wobbly. The whole endeavor is rather sullen and excessively atmospheric -- the acoustics reverberate so much that I was reminded of the opening theme to the old Star Trek television series at times; this is not a good thing. That leaves three recordings of just the three composer-orchestrated songs (numbers 1, 2, and 4). Izabella Klosinska sings them with a notably bright, sweet, open tone and precise trills in a recording on the Koch label (314001) from 1994, Satanowski is the conductor. Valdine Anderson is a Canadian soprano who has found a niche in music that is out of the mainstream. Her live version from a BBC Proms concert in 1998 (BBCP 1004-2) documents a flaming voice, persuasive musicianship, and command of coloratura skills, including a real trill. But the best is Iwona Sobotka under the baton of Simon Rattle who has championed Szymanowki's work throughout his career. She was the First Prize winner of the Queen Elisabeth Concours in 2004. In this 2006 recording (EMI) Sobotka is vocal graceful and smooth, and makes some lovely music out of this slightly askew music.
Louis Beydts' Chansons pour les oiseau was composed in 1948 as a cycle of four songs about four birds: a wounded dove, a blue pigeon, a bluebird, and a caged canary. The most striking is the third in the cycle, "L'oiseau bleu." It is a haunting, languorous listing of the names of goddesses and nymphs of love in a melody that gracefully builds up the scale to an apex at high E-flat. The slow-climbing ending on the word "amour" eventually suspends on a pianissimo high D-flat. It is a gorgeous musical gesture. The work was conceived for Janine Micheau, who made an early recording that I have not been able to find. It has seen renewed interest recently as three sopranos have included it in recital programs recorded in the 1990s: Karen Smith Emerson, Elizabeth Vidal, and Darynn Zimmer. Smith Emerson's voice is more effective here than in her Milhaud song, previously discussed, with a thrilling top. Elizabeth Vidal has an engaging, languid manner and utterly French tang to her diction. Darynn Zimmer on New Albion Records (NA 078) displays a golden, lyric tone and immaculate style. The hushed final "amour, amour, amour" is breathtaking.
Finally, there are three American composers to mention: Ned Rorem, Dominick Argento, and David Del Tredici.
Ned Rorem wrote a song cycle of six songs for high voice in 1953 for coloratura soprano, a Miss Fleming (no not that one). Several songs have been recorded apart from the whole group. "Song for a Girl," "Pippi's Song," and "The Silver Swan," are examples recorded by Gianna d'Angelo in the 1960s (released on LP for the Columbia and New World labels). Erie Mills sang the first three in her Always it's Spring collection of American concert songs (VAI 1151) from 1997, and Karen Smith Emerson just "The Silver Swan." D'Angelo has a winning innocence that is ideal for these songs. Mills' sprawling vibrato tends toward shrillness, but her artistic sensibility pleases regardless. Although one does not run into these songs regularly in concerts, it seems that Beverly Hoch has performed them in concert a number of times.
Dominick Argento's first song cycle Songs About Spring is a charming setting of five short poems by e.e.cummings. From 1951, the work is light and pleasant; three of the five songs are written as waltzes, and the final song, "When faces called flowers," wouldn't sound out of place in an operetta, and just begs to end on an interpolated high E-flat. The music is just high enough and flowery enough that a lyric-coloratura soprano is the best choice to put over the songs. Argento's wife Carolyn Bailey debuted the songs in 1951 and again premiered a chamber-orchestra version in 1960. I've only found two recordings: Patrice Michaels is light and alert on Cedille Records (CDR 029) and Jean Danton, who I have not heard, sings the set in her recital from 1997 (Albany Records 294), appropriately titled Songs of Innocence.
There is only one recording of David Del Tredici's astoundingly difficult cycle Miz Inez Sez. He composed these five songs for Hila Plitmann to poems by Colette Inez and accompanies her as she sings them on the CD Secret Music (CRI 878). The cycle is extremely demanding: a fascinating hodge-podge, thematically complex, and rather long (four of the pieces run six minutes or longer each). The central song "Good News! Nilda is Back!" is ten minutes of jubilant exclamation, with a long section of "cha cha's" that builds the singer a musical tower rising to 12 high E's in a row. The final song "Chateauneuf du Pape" is a satire capturing the absurd attempts of the Pope's valet to keep things in order. A flagrantly challenging coloratura pattern with at least a dozen blazing E-flats closes the cycle imperiously. Plitmann is never for a moment one flicker less than brilliant.
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