Saturday, March 7, 2020

"Twilight People" - pianist Tamar Halperin and countertenor Andreas Scholl's recent recording of atmospheric songs of the 20th and 21st centuries, including folk song settings

“Twilight People”, a disc recorded by countertenor Andreas Scholl and pianist Tamar Halperin, is a collection of songs carefully selected by the artists - songs of composers from Austria, England, America, of one born in Egypt and one in Israel, as well as settings of folk songs. 


The disc features three songs from Alban Berg’s “Jugendlieder” (1901-1908), a substantial collection written when Berg was studying with Arnold Schoenberg and that traces the young composer's musical transition from the late Romantic love song to a more modern idiom. Performing Berg’s setting of the Heinrich Heine poem Vielgeliebte schöne Frau” (Much-loved Beautiful Woman), Halperin and Scholl, with absolutely no affectation, evoke its mournful, bleak yet lush autumnal setting, with its pedal point in the bass moving down a half tone for one mystifying, staggering  beat, suddenly shedding light on the song’s chilling message. In “Ferne Lieder” (Distant Songs) to words of Friedrich Rückert, each mellifluous gesture is appraised by the artists, their reading of it emerging in lilting luxuriance and delicate flexing, endorsing Berg’s musical language that sees fit here to defy bar lines and conventional modulation,  Also lavish and tranquil in its melding of nature and the milieu of love is “Wo der Goldregen steht” (Where the Laburnum Stands), as Halperin and Scholl infuse it with a sense of spontaneity and well-being. 


Arrangements of folk songs form a major part of the disc. Benjamin Britten wrote 61 folk-song arrangements, many of them displaying extraordinarily imaginative piano accompaniments. His settings comprise songs of the British Isles, but also of some French melodies.  Halperin and Scholl’s performance of three settings was gently crestfallen and wistful: “The Salley Gardens”, an Irish tune with words by W.B. Yeats (a reconstruction of ‘an old song’ arranged in the early 1940s, as Yeats described it), with a deep sense of longing woven into its harmonies and a touch of word painting; the gloomy soundscape of “Greensleeves”, evoked by the piano's low strumming left hand (sounding very distant from the countertenor range) and its somewhat disturbing insistent single right hand note (mostly the 5th of the scale); and “The Ash Grove”, Britten’s first setting of a traditional Welsh tune, its opening accompaniment positive, light and buoyant, with the right-hand melody and its accompanying harmonies then moving away from the vocal line, as though distracted and  haunted by the poet's grief at  his beloved's death, to be followed by the return of a simpler harmonic language for the final two lines, restoring the song’s earlier feeling of reassurance. The richly flowing piano part of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “In the Spring” (My love is the maid), a Dorset folk-song as transcribed (in local dialect) by William Barnes, integrates the text’s profuse description of nature with the poet’s almost delirious love of a young woman;  Vaughan Williams adds his own comment in the form of a shadowy moment of reticence towards the end of the song. 


Aaron Copland’s two collections of Old American Songs (1950,1952), indeed, fine specimens of folk-song arrangements, are exquisitely presented on the disc. “The Little Horses” swings between the soothing caressing lullaby, accompanied by reposeful, seemingly random 5ths and sixths in the piano's upper register, and the expression of sheer childlike delight as inspired by the energetic rhythm of a trotting horse. “At the River”, a Methodist hymn by the Reverend Robert Lowry, dated 1865, begins pensively, gathering strength and spiritual conviction with calm simplicity as the accompaniment seems to evoke the steps of pilgrims making their way to the river.


Three songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams feature on the disc. From “The House of Life”, an early collection based on sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Silent Noon”, sensuous, rhapsodic and cushioned in opulent harmonies, interlinks passion and nature. On his score of “The Twilight People” (1925), from which this disc takes its title, the composer writes that this setting of Seamus O’Sullivan’s poem (1905) may be sung either unaccompanied (suggesting its folksong-type character) or with the composer’s piano accompaniment. Here, the artists choose to do both, initially with Scholl alone expounding its unique, meandering, at times, unpredictable melodic contour with alluring timbral beauty, then to repeat the song, this time joined by Halperin, who adds its sparse, mysterious high-register accompaniment. Both versions leave the listener deep in thought and ensconced in its otherworldly aura. From “Four Last Songs” (1958), written two years before Vaughan Williams’ death, his settings of poems of his wife and muse Ursula, a highly respected British poet and novelist, we hear “Tired”. Composed within one day, it is the only example of a work in which the composer wrote music with himself as the direct subject. The artists give tender expression to this love song, sensitively weaving into it the poet’s recollections as well as the sense of peaceful contentment when lying near one’s beloved, its gently rocking piano accompaniment soothing but also offering some subtle ambiguity as to interesting touch.


The disc includes two contemporary works, opening with “The Rest”, from “wiping ceramic tiles”, a 5-part song cycle for countertenor and piano by Israeli-born American composer/librettist/producer Ari Frankel (b.1960).  Halperin and Scholl give expression to its almost luminous soundscape, with Scholl’s superb control of the largely static vocal line set against Halperin’s fragile, unhurried broken chords of poised single notes, the piece’s minor mode slowly becoming invaded by major associations, also a smattering of thought-provoking dissonances, to culminate in direct major-minor confrontation commenting on “I HOPE TO KNOW AND FEEL SAFE ONE DAY.” Twilight People ends with “Beauty is Life”, by London-based Australian oud player Joseph Tawadros (b. Egypt, 1983), who joins Halperin and Scholl in performance of the work. A breathing, palpable kaleidoscope of east meeting west, of set texts dovetailing with improvisation, of three outstanding artists who, taking their cue from the initial ideas expounded by the oud, join to produce a work of superb, instinctive, natural musicianship and gripping emotion.


“Twilight People”, recorded in 2019 for the MODERN Recordings label, is unique in atmosphere, moving beyond everyday experience into the somewhat inexplicable (at times, disturbing) regions of the human psyche, as plumbed by the poets represented here. Arranged in strategic order, the pieces, whether addressing man within the powerful forces of nature, recalling love or memories - frequently all - pass through the emotional prism of the artists, resulting in performance that mixes the objective with the subjective, in performance that is beguiling, rich in gestures, fine in detail, of rare sensitivity and superb teamwork. Tamar Halperin and Andreas Scholl invite the listener to take flight into the timeless depths of his own soul. 


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