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Andrew Violette: "The Death of the Hired Man": Sherry Zannoth, soprano, Brad Cresswell, tenor, & Andrew Violette, piano. Innova 608, ©2004, 75:09, $15.99.
Continuing the pattern Andrew Violette established with his first recording for this the label of the American Composers Forum (supported by the McKnight Foundation) – his Piano Sonatas 1 and 7, evaluated in these pages by this writer and selected by Boston Globe reviewer Richard Dyer as one of the three best "New Music" CDs of 2003 – the composer takes standard musical forms and inherited compositional traditions and turns them on their head in compelling and satisfying ways.
The genre in this instance is the art song, and this CD offers two of them. At first "song" seems not to be the proper term in this instance, due to the works' more cantata-like length, but unlike cantatas, they do not offer both recitatives and arias, so song it seems to have to be.
The first, the titular 166-line poem by Robert Frost, second in his second collection, the 1914 North of Boston, runs for nearly 53 minutes, and is like a single declamatory recitative. The second, "The Love duet: [A] Walt Whitman Montage," is, at about 22.5 minutes, less than half as long and presents a 92-line compilation of Whitman lines (including some of his most famous ones) selected by the composer, arranged in the manner of an opera libretto, and executed as a single rapturous duet.
At the same time, both present content that is more cantata- than art-song-like. The Frost poem is a narrative with five characters (two present and three mentioned), telling a tale with a beginning and an end. The Whitman collage has two individuals present and engaging in dialogue that evokes and celebrates the actions of lovemaking.
The percussive piano accompaniment is very much in the minimalist tradition. In many ways, it calls to mind the film score genre because it also performs a supportive, evocative, and mood-setting role. Melody lines are varied with the story's characters and the textual content. Rhythms are often relentless and incessant, like those backing up on-screen chases, for example. The piano score's notes are not, however, of much help to the singer, whose vocal line often seems totally independent of if not diametrically opposed to them. Execution of these pieces must be an incredible challenge because of this and because of the sheer endurance factor, and these performances really hit the mark. Diction is excellent and generally exceptionally clear; interpretative skills are likewise outstanding.
Like the music, the accompanying tri-fold booklet is minimalist though nonetheless attractive. It presents only the texts of the poems (for which we are thankful, of course) and mini-capsule bios of the two singers, with a few brief analytical and laudatory quotes concerning the composer and the works, an eight-word quote by him, and a comment that he is working on an opera based on Milton's Paradise Lost and entitled "Adam and Eve in Heaven." We look forward to hearing it. Violette is photographed dressed as a quintessential 1920s or '30-ish "hired hand" on the booklet cover and the outside of the tray liner.
From this writer's perspective, the sole shortcoming of the works themselves is the dramatic monologue-like handling of the Frost. The unrelieved length of the single-voice presentation is to this mind (and these ears) less effective than would have been a dialogued execution, with one male and one female voice, so very effective in the Whitman piece, which respects the actual presentation of the poem. Admittedly, a creative way would have been needed to handle the fairly frequent "he said[s]"/"she said[s]" scattered throughout, but that would have been preferable, notwithstanding the suggestion of the relentless progress of life towards death that the present version evokes. Perhaps they could have been set to be spoken (as is the poem's last line, actually divided between the two characters) rather than sung, and executed by the other singer of the pair?
A possible weakness of the recording itself is the inexplicable sound imbalance between the vocal line and the piano score, especially in the Frost piece, with the latter often seeming to be in the foreground and the former in the distant background, even if it was never drowned out, rather than the anticipated reverse. Curiously, the balance seemed better on my inexpensive computer sound system than on my fancier stereo system.
Note: Violette is a member of the American Composers Forum; for more information, see http://www.composersforum.org/member_profile.cfm?oid=3042 [inactive 4/09].