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PERFORMING ARTS | ON THE RECORD

Dawn's Brightest Light

May 05, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

On paper, the latest Dawn Upshaw vehicle, "White Moon, Songs to Morpheus" (Nonesuch 79364), seems contrived: a centuries- and style-hopping hodgepodge, laboriously created to fit the Morpheus (i.e., sleep) theme, with a boggling mix of instrumentalists, including guitarists, a pianist, performers on banjo, flutes, percussion and electronic cello, as well as a gaggle of acoustical cellos and a vest-pocket version of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. There's a with-it cover illustration, Georgia O'Keeffe's whimsical "Ladder to the Moon," and program notes geared toward the 8-year-old reader--or someone who has never before encountered the names of Handel and Monteverdi.

Listening brings quite another set of reactions: fascination, enchantment, profound satisfaction. The program works, superbly, as an entity. There's intelligent method in this moon-madness.

Among the special attractions of the production are Upshaw's rapt singing of a glorious, inexplicably obscure aria from Handel's "Alceste"; masterful, equally neglected songs by Americans Ruth Crawford Seeger (the titular "White Moon," in which she elevates the stature of Carl Sandburg, as Schubert's music elevated many minor German poets); and Joseph Schwantner (his haunting, stylishly convoluted "Black Anemones").

The big number is George Crumb's spookily gripping 15-minute "Night of the Four Moons," to texts--as most American vocal works of the late '60s seemed to be--by Garcia Lorca. When Crumb created this agglomeration of extended vocal effects, curious twitterings (some electronic) and the mighty anomaly of Spanish words cast in Japanese musical modes, it sounded too exotic, or eccentric, to survive. Yet today, after our exposure to composers who followed Crumb's lead but lacked his imagination, "Night of the Four Moons" retains much of its emotional and sonic edginess, sounding faintly familiar without seeming dated. Credit not only the composer but Upshaw, who in Crumb as elsewhere here is as much a virtuoso of verbal as vocal effects and possibly the best whisperer and hummer on the concert stage today.

Upshaw is the performing star of this brainy variety show, but major kudos as well to pianist Margo Garrett, flutist Susan Rotholz, cellist Eric Bartlett and the Orpheus ensemble.

*

In a far more conventional vein, but hardly to be despised for that, is a recital of Schumann songs by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter (Deutsche Grammophon 445 881). Otter is ubiquitous these days, on CD and in the concert hall (everywhere but Los Angeles).

Her program centers on the well-worn "Frauenliebe und Leben" cycle, whose text, glorifying a woman's necessary dependence on her man's pleasures, might make the most dogged anti-feminist wince. Yet Otter sings it with such cool precision that Schumann's lush melodies take on a life almost independent of the words. While this may not be what the art of the art song is about, Otter's assured and proficient handling, with the sympathetic assistance of pianist Bengt Forsberg, does supply its own substantial rewards.

Which is not to say that Otter is deficient as a vocal actress, as the remainder of this generous program--the CD runs nearly 80 minutes--amply shows. Also included are equally lyrical (or dramatic, as dictated by the text) settings of more palatable poetry. Outstanding among them are five Hans Christian Andersen settings--grown-up poems about love and war, not kiddie stuff--and four songs to poems of Friedrich Ruckert, in which Otter (who, by the way, stands 6 feet 2) shows herself to be an expert miniaturist as well.

*

Incidental intelligence: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi has issued a four-CD collection (266 172, mid-price) of its 1960s recordings by Elly Ameling to coincide with the Dutch soprano's recent retirement from the concert stage after nearly 40 years before the public.

The set contains some four dozen lieder by Schubert, Brahms and Schumann, two complete Bach cantatas and at least a dozen additional selections, mostly from the Baroque repertory to which Ameling's purity of tone, pitch and enunciation proved ideally suited. Her lieder interpretations were likewise refreshingly free of affectation and operatic mannerisms and were, furthermore, accompanied--by the excellent Jorg Demus--on a delectably pinging fortepiano of the sort for which Schubert and Schumann intended their music.

But hurry. Such inexpensive multiple-disc retrospectives are issued in small quantity and have a way of disappearing from the catalog quickly and without warning.

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