Harbach Vol. 5: Vocal Music
Stella Markou, Soprano
As in the ensemble works on the accompanying disc this month, Harbach admiringly memorializes women of historical significance in these works for soprano and various instrumental combinations – Abigail, wife of President John Adams; Emily Dickinson, Helen Keller and four female American pioneers all appear here. The song medium allows Harbach’s melodic gifts full rein, while her refined harmonic sensibilities in a resolutely tonal, attractively accessible idiom provide rich and memorable context for the eloquent projection of her carefully chosen,
emotionally expressive texts. Texts included.
Records International, 2010
So far, in MSR’s survey of the music of Barbara Harbach, vocal music has been conspicuously absent, an oddity, to say the least. After all, apart from the music recorded here, Harbach has written a musical, Booth! (concerning the brother of John Wilkes) which played in New York last summer, and an opera, O Pioneers!, based on the novel by Willa Cather, was given in St Louis last October. Unfortunately, although O Pioneers! was broadcast on KFUO St Louis – (which was available on the internet – if you missed it that was it.) It’s a fine work, which needs repeated hearings to really get into the piece, so one can only hope for a national broadcast at some time, and thus a
worldwide audience could hear the work. Until then, here are seven vocal works, which show the range of Harbach’s vision.
Abigail! – Harbach seems to favour the exclamation mark in the titles of her vocal works! – sets words from letters between Abigail Smith Adams and John Adams, the second President of the USA. Voice and harp make such a good combination, and here they are complemented by wind and strings – it’s a beautiful piece of vocal chamber music, well laid out for a small
ensemble, colourful and understated.
Pleasure Flow, Tender Mist sets words by Jonathan Yordy – who wrote the libretti for both her musical Booth! and her opera – and they are eminently singable words – not always the case with contemporary verse. These are also very singable songs. Relaxed and tender, they would grace any recital.
Emily! sets words by Emily Dickinson and who would have thought that the combination of soprano, trumpet and piano would work so well together! Dickinson the mystic is here treated to music of ecstatic fervour which, due to the e trumpet, still has its feet on the ground, planted firmly in the real world. Harbach’s seeming simplicity – like Copland’s in his Dickinson settings – heightens the emotion and passion of the words. Perhaps the use of trumpet will militate against too many performances so we must be grateful
for this recording.
Pioneer Women: From Skagway to White Mountain sets words from four women who “helped settle the wilds of Alaska”. This is the longest work on the disk and it’s more dramatic and visionary than the other pieces. But it’s not without a sense of fun. With clarinet added to voice and piano, it is a major addition to the repertoire for this combination of instruments.
The final three short pieces are delightful make weights. Light Out of Darkness sets words by Helen Keller; it’s a simple, ecstatic chant. Cherish – Caress is a duet for voice and cello, setting more words by Yordy, which is a fine essay in how to write a really “singing” vocal line. The poem, however, is rather twee and somewhat cringe–making. Finally, Twenty–First Century Pioneer, is a blues, delivered in a lovely Southern style, with a down–home
drawl. Great fun.
It says much for the strength of Harbach’s work that she has created vocal music which builds on the two great American composers for the voice – Ned Rorem, who has probably done more for vocal music in the past sixty years than anyone, and Aaron Copland, whose 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson might just be the greatest American composition for voice and piano – yet manages to find her own truly American sound. As I have said before, when I have had the great pleasure to report on the previous four CDs of her music, she has forged a voice which is all her own yet speaks clearly in the American vernacular.
Don’t miss this disk for it is something very, very special. The performances are excellent, committed and vibrant – Stella Markou knows how to use her voice to best effect, and although rather limited in her range of vocal colour,
she makes up for it in insight into the music – in excellent sound and with
good notes in the booklet.
This is something very special …
Bob Briggs [MusicWeb International]
Barbara Harbach’s route to her current status as a highly respected American composer has been somewhat circuitous, and is well documented in a Fanfare 33:3 feature by Robert Schulslaper. Unlike her other discs, this one is wholly dedicated to vocal music, and shows a keen grasp for choosing texts that lend themselves to musical treatment and setting those texts with dramatic insight.
The text for Abigail! is culled from letters penned by John and Abigail Adams in 1762. Abigail was a true pioneer for equality for women, and though (or perhaps because) she received little formal education herself, she described the necessity for “learned women” if American society were to have “heroes, statesmen, and philosophers.” Harbach’s strength is her sensitive method of molding melodic contours and rhythms to fit her text, and soprano Stella Markou matches her syllable for syllable with diction so clear the reproduction of the words in the booklet is almost superfluous.
I reviewed another performance of Emily! in Fanfare 33:3 and enjoyed this performance every bit as much. The contrasting timbre of the trumpet is a perfect choice for Dickinson’s poetry, while Markou and trumpeter Paul Hecht play off each other nicely. Pleasure Flow, Tender Mist uses texts of Jonathan Yordy, and Harbach is right at home setting words like “wind,” “breeze,” “cooling,” “breath,” “misting,” and “calm.” Pentatonic scales play a large role in this set.
There is much to admire in this collection of vocal works, especially the choice of the text and her refusal to compromise the clarity of the messages behind the words. It is an approach that is well integrated and idiomatic for instruments and voice alike.
A couple of notable exceptions to this pattern come near the end of the disc, first with the cycle Pioneer Women, which ramps up the dramatic effects considerably for the first two songs, portraits of the fascinating Catherine Van Curler and Cordelia Nobel. The other change of pace comes in the disc finale, 21st Century Pioneer, a sassy blues number. Markou steps into these very different roles with nervy gusto.
Michael Cameron, Fanfare, [Nov/Dec 2010]
With a composer as diverse and prolific as Barbara Harbach, it’s hard to know where to start. Vocal Music is only one of three Harbach albums to have come out recently (Chamber Music II and Toccatas, Flourishes & Fugues are the other two), and it would be oversimplifying to say that it’s the “best” of the three. But by serving as an exhilaratingly lyrical vehicle for the exhilaratingly lyrical soprano Stella Markou, it presents a hitherto underexposed side of Harbach’s prodigious compositional gifts in a most flattering light.
Arsenio Orteza, World Magazine [August 14, 2010]
“Stella Markou…has a clear and compact voice that often reminds me of a young Dawn Upshaw… The musicians and performances are excellent. I especially appreciated trumpeter Paul Hecht’s
control and (yes) sweet tone in Emily!”
Kilpatrick, American Record Guide [November/December 2010]
“…this [CD] is wholly dedicated to vocal music, and shows a keen grasp for choosing texts that lend themselves to musical treatment and setting those texts with dramatic insight… Harbach’s strength is her sensitive method of molding melodic contours and rhythms to fit her text, and soprano Stella Markou matches her syllable for syllable with diction so clear the reproduction of the words in the booklet is almost superfluous… There is much to admire in this collection of vocal works, especially the choice of the text and her refusal to compromise the clarity of the messages behind the words… well integrated and idiomatic for instruments and voice alike… Markou steps
into these very different roles with nervy gusto… Recommended.”
Michael Cameron, Fanfare November/December 2010
“…the songs run the gamut from concert Lieder to Broadway belt and blues… Light Out of Darkness is lyrical and sweet, well set, with the text nicely exegeted from Helen Keller’s
David Wolman, Fanfare [November/December 2010]