Along with the previously reviewed Aaron Copland: 81st Birthday Concert (cross-reference below), these three discs—effective remasters of live performances—are a wonderful tribute to the virtuosity and deft understanding of her art by Jan DeGaetani, one of America’s finest mezzo-sopranos.
Early Music Recital is a marvellous compilation of songs, madrigals and chansons spanning four languages (English, Italian, French, German) and seven composers—including a lively cautionary tale from “Anonymous”: “Filles à marier”. Her instrumental colleagues are Paul O’Dette, lute, Judith Davidoff, viola de gamba and vielle (Medieval bowed string instrument) along with Philp West, shawms.
Recorded in 1977 at the Eastman School of Music, the program begins with six selections from John Dowland’s First Book of Songs. All of these are well shaped, readily capturing the different subject matters and are ideally balanced. “All ye, whom Love and Fortune” is a highlight. The overarching air of despondency is deftly captured; DeGaetani unleashes her considerable power in the chromatic rise, End ears and tears to me, most hapless man, to excellent effect then slips in some equally effective, discreet portamenti with the greatest of ease (much more difficult to do than they sound).
Donatus de Florentia’s (aka Donato da Cascia) “Sovran uccello se’fra tutti gli altri” slips us into the realm of melismatic Italian madrigals. A bit of jazziness and syncopation add to the variety, the only blemish being near-perfect ensemble from the continuo.
Just as quickly, the linguistic gears shift to French for Hayne van Ghizeghem’s “De tous bien plaine” (thoughtfully introspective), “Amors, amors” (a study in contrasts with a fine solo between stanzas from O’Dette adding welcome colour and variety) before this set concludes with the jaunty, shawms-infused “Filles à marier.”
Back to Italy, Luzzasco Luzzaschi’s “Aura soave” was lovingly preserved and quietly understated as DeGaetani’s expert melismatic skills were aptly demonstrated (notably “desio” and “stile”). “Amarilli, mia bella’s” (Giulio Caccini) pleading-for-love message would be understandable in any language. All of the emotional angst is readily swept away with the engagingly rollicking “Belle rose porporine.”
The disc concludes with four offerings from Oswald von Wolkenstein (perhaps not all 100% original according to program annotator Patrick Mason). Here the word count per square measure significantly increases as the laughs abound (“Stand auff, Maraedel”) and—best of show—DeGaetani fills the ear with a covey of bird calls ( and a precursor to Rossini’s “crescendo) while Davidoff is spot-on in her support during “Der mai mit lieber zal.” Finally, nothing better than “Fröleich geschral so well wir machen” to conclude the disc with a spring in its step and heartfelt thanks to DeGaetani and her talented colleagues.
The first disc of Jan DeGaetani Gilbert Kalish in Concert features disparate composers all bound together by DeGaetani’s considerable artistry and the supportive empathetic accompaniments of pianist Kalish.
A quartet of songs from Beethoven lift off the recital with élan. In the first three (text by Goethe), the music is filled with steady movement, a sense of reticence and power as required from both (Bliss of Sadness), collective uncertainty and obvious love (For her I keep watch—”Yearning”) and then an exquisitely coloured ode to beauty (“To Accompany a Painted Ribbon”). But the real gem is “Evening Song Beneath a Starry Sky” (poetry from Heinrich Goeble). Here, the word painting is magnificent, allowing happy contentment as the day closes, through a tempest that echoes the master’s mighty sonata and—magically—a breath of silence. Once sound returns, it becomes clear that this is the last night on earth for the protagonist; ready to end “my earthly pilgrimage” with contented resignation. Naturally, metaphorically, the piano provides a few measures of eulogy (lovingly crafted by Kalish—perhaps knowing of the real passage of his colleague soon to come) after DeGaetani slips ever so quietly away to “my sorrows’ beautiful reward.”
Five songs from Francis Poulenc, as brief as they are, nonetheless, have a lot to say about the soul, love and life. My favourite being “That’s How You Are”, an ode to the soul with delectable portamenti on demand. The concluding “Women in Love” is far ahead of its time in all things amoureuse.
Kenneth Frazelle’s Worldly Hopes (1985), with poems from A.R. Ammons, launch an entirely different soundscape. The five songs see a much clearer alignment—now two protagonists rather than soloist and supporter. From the opening salvo in “Room Conditioner”, Kalish sets the largely dissonant, at times strident stage before DeGaetani weaves in her long, liquid lines that place extra emphasis on strong consonants—at one with the piano’s discourse. The word painting is divine (notably insubstantial in “Shading Flight In.” The most substantive movement (and conclusion, “Rainy Morning”) features yet another divine change of register during “transluminous”, yet a far too long farewell and “break out afloat” searching seemingly in vain, for a satisfactory resolution. How appropriate the last line is separated in high lyings, for, indeed, they were.
From the ever-inventive imagination of George Crumb come four songs that show his early mastery and then a sublime realization of his magnificent creative skills. In the Three Early Songs (texts from Robert Southey and Sara Teasdale), DeGaetani and Kalish forge one voice—albeit of different hues. The liquid lines of “Night” (with the effective use of repeated notes) create a wonderful portrait of life without the sun. “Let it Be Forgotten” overflows with introspective and strong declamations from both parties. “Wind Elegy”: is a marvel of colours whose final line, But he is asleep, it said, artfully sets up the closer. Perhaps the highlight of the disc, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Sleeper” digs deep into the master’s tale of a particular June midnight, infused with “opiate vapour”, resonating mightily with the challenges and defeats of our present-day world.
A trio of songs form Claude Debussy (from Fêtes galantes, Series II—text by Paul Verlaine) are a fitting close to the first disc. “The Innocents” immediately captures the notion of “ah, youth” as the easy-going music celebrates early love and unexpected bewilderments. After a wonderfully crafted introduction from Kalish, “The Faun” (not quite Debussy’s most famous one…) readily marches to the beat of a decidedly different—hooves and all—drummer. The concluding “Sentimental Dialogue” is a wonderful essay on the age-old question: “Can you ever go back?” What fun and how appropriate that the last line (Thus they walked amid wild oats, and only the night heard their words) offers both a resolution and the cause of the earlier split simultaneously.
Opening the second disc, the five songs from Richard Strauss (texts by Hermann von Gilm, a pair by Karl Henckell then Felix Dahn; the last from John Henry MacKay) are nothing short of a master class of art song: composition and delivery. The preponderance of love, darkness and light permeate all of these creations to a mesmerizing effect. DeGaetani’s diction is superb; her control of all registers must be heard to be believed and relished (“wogenbluen—blue-waved” from “Tomorrow” is unforgettable). Kalish brings his total command of texture, tone and touch to marvellous effects. The extended introduction and delicate “adieu” in “Tomorrow”—Strauss’ operatic acumen coming to the fore—make this last song the fitting finale to the most beautifully crafted set of both discs.
Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay” makes the ideal transition from romantic Germany to anything-goes U.S.A.
Stanley Walden’s Three Women, with its grippingly dramatic texts by Jacques Levy simultaneously celebrate and reflects on the lives of three long-departed family members (aunt, grandmother, mother). “No Longer (Blanche)” is a free-form walk down memory lane where—beyond the shadow of a doubt—the eyes, literally given numerous repetitions, have it. The colour scheme varies from impish to brutal: a very wide-ranging existence indeed. DeGaetani’s death throes are achingly realistic as—here—art defines death. (That moment brings back the recent memory of Beethoven’s ode to mortality, “Evening Song Beneath a Starry Sky” on disc 1.) A long journey from one land to another begins “Grandma (Millie)” with a sense of foreboding even as the old woman loses her loved ones and quietly rocks herself into oblivion. The always challenging relationship between mother and child is at the core of “The Answer (Jean).” The notions of physical touch, gaining approval—“Am I doin’ it right, Ma?”—sets the stage for metaphorical lightning strikes that can’t help but terrorize all listeners. Once the storm subsides, DeGaetani can find no more music, speaking two lines before rekindling her “voice” on “sighed” then “luing” Ma-ma to eternal sleep over the pedal broken chords from Kalish. Most personal and impressive portraits performed by those they were written for—on both sides of the grave.
To conclude this fascinating array of art songs, it falls to Franz Joseph Haydn and the woman scorned and betrayed from his cantata, Arianna a Naxos. DeGaetani puts her emotional all into this love-dashed eruption of disbelief, bitter acceptance and longing for death as final release. At times leading a merry chase (notably in the recitative, Kalish never fails to be supportively at her side from the thoughtful introduction to the final cadence) the ensemble never wavers. Teamwork such as this is as wonderful as it is rare. Merci mille fois. JWR