Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day Review

By Robert A. Moore | American Record Guide

SUMMER: Oxford Songs
The Shakespeare Concerts/John McGinn [music director]
Albany 881 71 minutes

Based on what I can discern from his notes, Joseph Summer was born around 1956 and has made settings of Shakespearean texts a primary passion of his life as a composer. This release by The Shakespeare Concerts includes settings of six sonnets of Shakespeare, incidental music from his plays, and a setting of ‘Leda and the Swan’ by WB Yeats. Based primarily in the Boston area, the five singers of the ensemble are accompanied by harp, flute, string quartet [QX], double bass, and piano.

This is the second recording by the Shakespeare Concerts, and it is a very good one. The musicians are all very accomplished and perform this music admirably and, it seems fair to assume, definitively, since the composer was present at the recording sessions at Clark University, where McGinn is a faculty member.

Beginning with a spare but not austere setting of Sonnet CIV (“To me fair friend you never can be old”) for soprano and harp accompaniment, Summer’s compositional range as revealed in these works is broad. An almost Ravel-like Sonnet XVIII ends with an ingenious setting of the words “So long as man can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Mezzo Kelly Van Horn fades and blends into the hushed sound of a sustained viola note; it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, and it imbues the text with a wonderful sense of long-lived breath. It’s a magical moment.

The sumptuous setting of ‘Leda and the Swan’ is an almost post-romantic work sung by soprano Heather Curley with string quartet. ‘When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy,” is given a wonderful reading by tenor Alan Schneider with string quartet and double bass.

This music is well worth hearing; its original and imaginative tonal language is given creative expression by these excellent musicians. The recording is superb. The somewhat whimsical notes by the composer explain his intentions for each work. Texts are supplied.