Here’s a truly ardent project that artfully combines poetry and music exploring the universal subject of love in all of its forms. No matter what your persuasion or experience in the affairs of the heart, no one will go away unmoved: filled with joy, regret, hope or sorrow. “Or what’s a heaven for?”
This CD is the brainchild of frequent collaborators tenor Brian Giebler and pianist Steven McGhee. At times, they are joined on this remarkable journey by countertenor Reginald Mobley, violinists Katie Hyun and Ben Russell, as well as violist Jessica Meyer and cellist Michael Katz, all adding extra colour and texture to the principals’ art.
Two works from Ivor Gurney (Ludlow and Teme, 1923—text by Alfred Housman; In Flanders, 1917—text by Frederick Harvey) are remarkably similar. Both mix together nature’s bounty (fleeting or sustained), longing for home, relationship angst/advice and inevitable death brought on by armed conflict.
Giebler’s warm, fluid voice is ideally suited to “When Smoke Stood Up from Ludlow” with its fanciful notion that birds can speak. The ensemble captures the light and airy soundscape to a T, as the text shifts between “rise up” and “rest”.
“Far in a Western Brookland” is marvellously thoughtful, reverent and muted. Here, Giebler’s control and sustaining abilities are used to ideal effect (notably “to know”, “alone” and “sigh”). Gurney’s reworking of the original poem adds still more elements to the drama.
Bursting with energy, busyness and welcome hope, “’Tis Time, I Think, by Wenlock Town” is entirely engaging right to its “plucky” goodbye.
“Ludlow Fair” is a study in contrasts: the rollicking fun of pretty girls, booze and meeting handsome men followed by the grim realities of human conflict (And watch them depart on the way that they will not return).
Katz’s pulsating, pizzicato deftly serves as the “steady drummer” that fuels “On the Idle Hill of Summer.” The violins follow suit by “screaming” the notion of Lovely lads and dead and rotten, even as Giebler leaves absolutely no doubt that I will rise.
Sage advice is proffered in “When I Was One-and-Twenty.” But what young man (or woman) at that exciting/scary age will take it?
Crafting a truly amiable spring, the ensemble--readily anchored by McGhee’s superb understanding of when to assert or provide reliable background—sets the stage for the finale. Once again, life and death come into the fray, this time with metaphoric flowers providing much beauty and awe during their brief lives. Giebler’s spot-on diction leaves no thought unheard, even as the gentle finish puts all to rest in an instrumental heaven.
“In Flanders” (1917), composed by Gurney while his friend, Harvey, was languishing as a prisoner of war, absolutely captures the feeling of intense longing for my hills again. In just over three minutes, all concerned remind us both of the fragility of life and absurdity of resolving conflicts (real or frequently imagined) with bullets instead of brains.
From a purely textual point of view, Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac) is the most repugnant track on the album. This tale of blind obedience to a god who seemingly sanctions his “disciples” to molest boys and men, live better lives than most of their subjects, lets innocent children perish in war or disease and looks on “idoly” (pun intended) during pestilence and pandemics has no right to sit on any throne, anywhere.
From a strictly musical point of view, the performance is compelling from stem to stern. Along with Mobley, Giebler combines their voices and fashion a lovely blend and near-perfect release of the consonants. McGhee is sympathetic, supportive and leading as required—notably the “panic” once Isaac understands that in God’s name, his father must slaughter him.
Both of their late-inning changes of register (Kneeling on; My blessing) are thrilling. One can only pity the luckless sheep, destined to die thanks to That worthy King.
The next three songs combine for a kind of intermezzo.
Peter Warlock’s “In an Arbour Green” (1922), offers a confident, forward-looking outlook and much pleasure.
“Love’s Philosophy”, (Roger Quilter, 1905), is infused with watery imagery and deep emotion, all leading—of course!—to many welcome kisses.
From John Ireland comes “Ladslove” (1920), with a more restrained pinning for love—why not? And, hopefully, not in vain, for doesn’t “it” spring eternal?
With poetry from W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten’s “realization” of “Fish in the Unruffled Lakes” is a marvel of delicacy, boldness and metaphors. Giebler’s liquid legato, sense of impishness and fun, a stellar octave and sense of timing inform the six portions from stem to stern—even amongst the animal kingdom: lion, fish, swan, horses just as loves are lost and too many exterminated by “long-range” gun. McGhee is with the program at every turn, subtleties abound, points well made.
In We’ll to the Woods No More, Ireland fashions two late poems from Houseman into regally declaimed statements of deep loss—on the battlefields and beyond. Giebler brings truth and despair to the brooding texts. In the concluding “Spring Will Not Wait”, McGhee is completely on his own, filling every measure with bittersweet reflection on all that came before.
The album concludes with one song from Ian Venables’ 2004 cycle, Songs of Eternity and Sorrow—also with text from Housman. “Because I Liked You Better” might well be described as an Ode to Lavender. It’s so appropriate to have the strings return after Giebler has impassionedly laid his heart bare, because—finally—words defeat us when overpowering emotions take hold. JWR