Sallie Chisum remembers Billy the Kid
The Giraffes go to Hamburg
Three Dickinson Songs
Barbara Bonney (soprano)
Renee Fleming (soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn (piano)
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: DG 471 028-2
Previn writes superbly for the voice – singers obviously love his music, quite apart from two of the ’first ladies’ of American opera and song recorded here. Recent works have also been written for Sylvia McNair and Kathleen Battle. His is a predominately lyrical language and he chooses his texts with great care – more often than not, as he has acknowledged, he seems drawn to “sad poetry … or about loss or unrequited feelings,” which lends an air of the touching nostalgia associated with Samuel Barber, to which both Bonney and Fleming readily associate. The Vocalise, written in less than two hours as a filler for a previous recording of songs and chamber music (made by McNair and Yo-Yo Ma), is as near-perfect as it could be: simple, singable and poignant without being saccharine.
The enigmatic poetry of Emily Dickinson has been set by many American composers, most notably Aaron Copland. Previn’s little gems are a delight; the outer ones are reflective, while the middle setting – ’Will There Really be a Morning?’ – elicits a somewhat surprising albeit valid setting of up-beat, breezy energy. The other work written for Fleming, The Giraffes go to Hamburg, sets lines from Karen Blixen’s memoir ’Out of Africa’. Fleming could not have wished for anything more suited to her ability to convey atext’s deeply affecting undercurrent. The lonely, mysterious sound of an alto flute lends apt ’local colour’ though it is a pity that such an addition should prevent this work having the number of performances it deserves. The final vocal item, Sallie Chisum Remembers Billy the Kid, has been recorded by Barbara Bonney before in the original piano version. Previn now adds his orchestral expertise – discreet rattles on side drum – while widely-spaced harmonies perhaps remind of Copland’s ’Billy’. For this writer, Michael Ondaatje’s text has a curiously inconclusive ending, though no composer could wish for a more radiant and committed performance.
Previn seems to be having something of an ’Indian Summer’ as far as composition is concerned. I read that he considers himself to be a conductor who likes to compose – it seems he must like it more! No less an orchestra than the Vienna Philharmonic requested a new work that should “not be for an outsized orchestra, and … not too intensely profound”. The result is a 25-minute concerto for orchestra, a real orchestral showpiece, spotlighting principal players and sections.
After a striking call to attention, the opening ’Prologue’ is full of energy, syncopation and rhythmic interplay – Walton comes to mind, not least in the expert orchestration; Previn is one of the English composer’s greatest champions, so perhaps the connection is not so unexpected. The second movement is a sombre ’Passacaglia’ (shades of Shostakovich and, maybe, Britten) with impassioned, improvised-like solos from clarinet, cello and piccolo. The third movement – ’fast’ – has exposed, demanding, leaping lines for horn and trumpet; the ’slow’ finale is this time wistful rather than tragic, returning to the nostalgic soundworld of the songs. The Vienna Philharmonic conducted by the composer sounds marvellous – without a score it is difficult to tell, but everything sounds tight, controlled and, at the same time, lively, warm and precise.
There’s certainly nothing here to frighten the horses in terms of style, but so much to admire and relish from this remarkable and, in my view, under-valued musician.