This impressive release from Marta Fontanals-Simmons and Lana Bode fashions a commentary on the position of Women in the World and expectations of their silence. Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale and Virginia Woolf are among those whose words are recreated, two of which – Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and Peter Lieberson’s Rilke Songs – were respectively written for Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. A note from the artists in the comprehensive booklet (including texts and translations) points to the choice of songs which “explore mindfulness, personal transformation through adversity, and the struggle to maintain a healthy mind and body in an increasingly busy, noisy and turbulent world.”
With such weighty ideas, this may not be a recital to listen to at one sitting, yet the plush tones of the singer allied to a searing musical intelligence perfectly match the unflinching honesty and seriousness of the verse. To the three settings by Aaron Copland (from Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson) she brings a strong sense of protest for ‘Why do they shut me out of Heaven?’, numbed grief for the dead of the American Civil War in ‘The world feels dusty’ and torment for ‘I felt a funeral in my brain’ to mirror Dickinson’s mental traumas.
Argento’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning settings of Woolf’s closely observed and chronologically arranged diary entries combine directness of expression (‘Hardy’s Funeral’) with clear theatrical instincts (‘Anxiety’) to which singer and pianist bring wistfulness to ‘The Dairy’, resolution to the melodramatic ‘Fancy’ and insouciance to ‘Rome’. A more relaxed, softer-grained tone wraps itself round the shapely contours of ‘Parents’ and the nervous mood of ‘War’ (with its disturbing gunfire accompaniment) is intensely haunting. The desperation of ‘Last Event’ is superbly focused, as too the delivery of the simple lines such as “Haddock and sausage meat”.
Occasionally, I would welcome a more confessional vocal tone, as much to underline the personal recollections of the writer as to give relief from Fontanals-Simmons’s (appropriately) earnest manner that pervades much of this cycle. She’s captivating in George Crumb’s youthful ‘Let it be forgotten’, the second of Three Early Songs from 1947 (the composer was eighteen) that sets the little-known poet Sara Teasdale who was plagued by ill-health, loss and loneliness throughout her short life. The long-breathed lines of Samuel Barber’s ‘Nocturne’ (from Opus 13) are nicely poised though its dynamic range is somewhat short-changed in its single pianissimo passage.
Peter Lieberson’s complex Rilke Songs are sung with great authority and supported with due regard to weight and delicacy of the piano writing, both artists responding generously to the wandering melodic writing of the second number, the "invisible poem" of breathing, and the eerie stillness of the final setting, its bell-like chords beautifully transparent. Fontanals-Simmons and Bode are fine advocates of this enigmatic repertoire.