Written at a time when the inevitable conclusion of a life and career were heading unstoppably to their respective codas, The Ecstatic Pilgrimage is a meeting of two creative minds whose disparate pasts, nonetheless, have much in common.
On this beautifully crafted and recorded disc (engineer/editor Silas Brown’s realization is nothing short of superb) two of the six sets which comprise Leo Smit’s last major offering are presented with the welcome novelty of Three Poems of Marcia Willieme providing a few moments of contrast in between.
Cycle 4 (“Beyond Circumference”) begins the program, perhaps placed first due to its slightly more sombre tone and subject matter (“Eighteen Songs about Death, Faith and Immortality”). There is an immediate feeling (not quite as strong with Cycle 3, which has more moments of melody and melissmatic lines: “There came a Day at Summer’s full” shares one rising scale with “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun”; “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” also sports equally rare triplets) that Smit somewhat subsumes the music, being perfectly content to paint Emily Dickinson’s texts one syllable at a time and, for the most part, with supportive, unobtrusive accompaniments.
Soprano Georgine Resick is the ideal protagonist on behalf of both artists. Her ability to pull perfect pitches out of nowhere (“That first Day, when you promised Me, Sweet”—pivotal to this cycle and featuring an array of styles employed thus far), produce silky changes of register (“The first Day’s Night had come -”) and persuade all listeners as to the meaning both of and behind the words (“Go slow, my soul, to feed thyself” is given a marvellously bluesy hue; it’s not difficult to see vampires arise in the set’s closing lament (still, “Departed to the Judgment” concludes—as do perhaps another half-dozen—in consonance; even a perfect fifth is summoned after “Two Worlds - Like Audiences - disperse”).
Warren Jones displays a wonderfully discreet touch be it shimmering dreamscapes (“The Sun kept setting - setting - still”), nimble dexterity (“I went to Heaven” also has much to say about the hereafter where “Almost - contented - I could be”) and rhythmic surety (“What if I say I shall not wait!”) that push and pull as required, producing stellar ensemble that too many others can only hope to achieve.
Perhaps the most romantic of the lot is “Me prove it now - Whoever doubt.” Dickinson’s mystical “River” comes to glorious life while solace and watery salvation is sought “with Thee!”
Willieme’s stanzas are not cut from the same cloth as the fabled poet but display enough invention to warrant Smit’s attention. “And All the Air is Still” lifts off in a more melodic fashion only to slip back to “word sing” even as the “birds bestir themselves to sing.” Travel Music II (the first being “Twas the old - road - through pain -“) is a fascinating ride around town (“Bus Tour: Boston in the Rain”), mixing landmarks and “lifemarks” equally with creativity and compassion. “In the Celestial Computer” is a brief ode to the bytes and loves that elude us. Both performers are wonderfully dry for the data entry and reverent for the final instruction: “Press H for Help /Display /And pray.” Amen to that. JWR