Feature Review by Barnaby Rayfield | Fanfare Magazine 2013
SUMMER Oxford Songs, Book 1: 8. Dance of the Mechanics;1 9. Sonnet 130.2 Oxford Songs, Book 2: 7. Sonnet 8;3 8. Sonnet 110;4 9. Sonnet 18;5 12. When That I Was and A Little Tiny Boy.6 Oxford Songs, Book 3: 1. If By Your Art;7 2. Sonnet 104;8 6a. Leda and the Swan;9 11. Sonnet 12810 • 1, 7, 8Eve Gigliotti (sop); 3, 9Heather Curley (sop); 3, 5Kellie Van Horn (mez); 2, 6, 10Alan Schneider (ten); 4Thomas O’Toole (bar); 2, 7, 8Anna Reinerman (hp); 5Sarah Brady (fl); 3John McGinn, (pn); 10Krista Buckland Reisner (vn); 1, 5, 6Max Zeugner (db);1, 4–6, 9QX String Quartet • ALBANY 881 (70:31)
There are possibly too many titles on this very summery disc; Shall I compare Thee to a summer’s Day-The Oxford Songs of Joseph Summer-The Shakespeare Concerts. It is very hard not to like Joseph Summer and the very unabashed, or foolhardy, way he has taken on the big Shakespeare sonnets and song texts for his very accessible, melodic settings. Trained at the Oberlin Conservatory and a pupil of Czech composer, KarelHusa, the crusading Summer has forged a very single minded career writing mainly vocal music. As founder of the Shakespeare Concerts festival, started in 2003, he has created a platform with which to showcase his ever expanding legacy of Shakespeare settings, gathered together as the Oxford Songs (Summer subscribes to the theory that Shakespeare was a mere pseudonym for the 17th Earl of Oxford). With more than 60-odd settings to pick from, Summer has already produced a previous Albany compendium and it seems that this could run and run as an ongoing Bard legacy.
The tone this disc evokes (and this is high praise) is Britten folk songs. Both Summer and Britten write sympathetically for the voice, and go in for spare accompaniments that are interestingly arranged for anything from harp to flute and double bass. There are similar fanfare like flourishes in the accompaniments and both composers use the harp to great, unsickly effect. Summer’s vocal writing is never less than interesting and his word-setting is admirably simple and logical, even if his instrumental writing is a little more repetitive than the more inventive Britten. But maybe that is not a fair comparison, and in the case of, say, his Tempest setting, If By Your Art, Summer is arguably channeling a more romantic, operatic mood. There really is not a dud track here and a standout is the spooky duet setting of the sonnet, Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?, with its beautiful chromaticism and colorful piano writing. Eve Gigliotti’s slight edge to the voice contrasts well with Kellie Van Horn’s plangent mezzo. Other highlights include the Yeats setting,Leda and the Swan for soprano and quartet (Summer writes best for string quartet, going by this disc), and his tenor setting of the sonnet, My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun, a perfect example of less is more in musical setting. The most innovative work here is purely instrumental; a darkly humorous, turbulent eight-movement suite, The Dance of the Mechanics, portraying the likes of Moth and Sir Nathaniel and other ‘vulgar’ characters from Love’s Labour’s Lost, although I found it comes across stronger as a unified tone poem, rather than a portrait gallery. Ending with a quirky, playful setting of Twelfth Night’s When I was a tiny little boy, sung beautifully by tenor Alan Schneider, my only real criticism of the recital is that the whole disc seems rather too reflective in mood, although there’s no denying Summer’s skill. I will be intrigued to hear his opera of Hamlet to see if he can show a more histrionic, dramatic side. He certainly writes well for the voice.
Everything here is very well performed and these are singers I’d happily encounter again, especially in repertoire like English folk songs; text aware and expressive, they are part of this disc’s charm. Sound is bright and balanced and Albany provides its usual professionalism with regard to notes and presentation, although Summer is perhaps too exhaustive about the inspiration of every work. Undemanding but all very pleasant and skillfully done, this is Britten-lite. Nothing wrong with that. Barnaby Rayfield
This article originally appeared in Issue 36:4 (Mar/Apr 2013) of Fanfare Magazine.