Nathan & Julie Gunn and Pacifica Quartet at Zankel Hall [A Shropshire Lad, Dover Beach, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven, Blue Mountain Ballads]

Ben Moore
When you are old; The Lake Isle of Innisfree [both arr. Julie Gunn]
In the highlands; Over the land is April [both arr. Gunn]
Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad
Dover Beach, Op.3
Down East; Tom Sails Away; An Old Flame; General William Booth Enters Into Heaven; The Things Our Fathers Loved; Circus Band
Blue Mountain Ballads
Dooryard Bloom [world premiere of chamber version]

Nathan Gunn (baritone) & Julie Gunn (piano)

Pacifica Quartet [Simin Ganatra & Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins), Masumi Per Rostad (viola) & Brandon Vamos (cello)]

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 22 April, 2013
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

Nathan and Julie at the Schubert Club in Cincinnati. Photograph: www.nathangunn.comClassical vocal recitals sung entirely in English are rare nowadays, as are concerts juxtaposing voice and string quartet, so this performance bringing Nathan Gunn and his wife Julie together with the Pacifica Quartet was a welcome treat. The highlights of the evening were two extended works for voice and string quartet. Dover Beach, set by a young Samuel Barber to the brilliant Matthew Arnold poem, is a masterpiece. It was given a convincing performance by Gunn and the Pacifica players. Later came Jennifer Higdon’s re-working for voice, string quartet and piano of her Dooryard Bloom, a setting of Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d. Although its timbres are obviously more limited than in the orchestral version, Higdon uses the smaller ensemble to create a rich palate of sounds to set off the vocal line. After a central extended instrumental interlude the strings fell silent, leaving the piano alone to accompany the singer’s invocation: “Come, lovely and soothing death” – a most striking effect. In the final stanza, the strings touchingly highlighted references to the poem’s central symbols – lilac, star and bird – before playing the funereal postlude. Although this elegy to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln deals with the darkest of subjects, it came across as less pessimistic than Arnold’s words in Dover Beach.

The portions of the recital performed without the strings were superb. In George Butterworth’s cycle, that he compiled from his eleven settings from A. E. Housman’s poetry, A Shropshire Lad, the Gunns imbued the songs with a wistful sadness as they underscored the tragedy of sending youths off to die in combat, although expressing a glimmer of hope for those who survive. I was particularly touched by the first song, ‘Loveliest of trees’. Sung tenderly by Gunn as cherry trees are blooming in New York and heard by this listener not long after attaining ‘threescore years and ten’, it served as a reminder both of the beauty of nature and of human mortality. In ‘Is my team ploughing?’, which concluded the sequence, Gunn dramatically alternated between minor and major modes as a young man reassures his inquisitive deceased friend that life goes on happily for those who have survived him.

Pacifica Quartet. Photograph: Anthony ParmeleeFive songs by Charles Ives showed off the composer’s idiosyncratic style, which brings one surprise after another. The most dramatic, General William Booth Enters into Heaven, set to Vachel Lindsay’s powerful poem with its repeated query “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”, was punctuated at one point by the pianist’s cry of “Hallelujah”. The other texts, by Ives himself, celebrate childhood memories, most charmingly in Circus Band of a boy’s fascination with the annual parade. Although Paul Bowles is best known as a novelist and Tennessee Williams as a playwright, Bowles’s Blue Mountain Ballads, a setting of four Williams poems, combines an eclectic compositional approach with evocative linguistic imagery. Gunn voiced silvery high notes in ‘Heavenly Grass’ and sang the blues along with syncopated piano in the ragtime ‘Lonesome Man’ and to a percussive, bouncy accompaniment in ‘Sugar in the Cane’.

Less successful was the opening set of four songs whose original piano accompaniments were arranged to add a string quartet – two songs by Ben Moore, one to a poem by W. B. Yeats and one by James Joyce, and two settings by Roger Quilter to verse by Robert Louis Stevenson. The music was lush and lovely, and Gunn’s singing and the instrumental playing were fine, yet there seemed to be little point to these arrangements beyond providing more material for the Pacifica musicians. The integrity of the piano line was dissipated and sometimes lost as it was spread among five instruments, and the more massive sound made it hard for Gunn’s singing to stand out – although he was still able to communicate both the meaning of the texts and the beauty of the music. Gunn closed the evening, which had seen Ben Moore and Jennifer Higdon in attendance, with an appropriate encore, the Irish folk-ballad, The Parting Glass.

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