Joseph Summer’s Shakespeare’s Memory on Navona

By Ruth Carver | I CARE IF YOU LISTEN

Composers from Schubert to Verdi to Rautavaara have set the Bard, but few composers can claim such a singularly academic and thorough body of work as Joseph Summer’s art song and operatic settings. Shakespeare’s Memory, the first in a planned series released by Navona Records, is devoted to Summer’s indefatigable compositional and scholarly work in expressing the words of Shakespeare through music. This record includes excerpts of his operas Hamlet and The Tempest, a handful of the Sonnets, settings of Milton and Yeats, and a movement from a string quartet. Summer is a staunch Oxfordian, meaning he believes the works of “Shakespeare” were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and much of his musical inspiration seems to draw from this hypothesis.

With his own works at the core, Summer has been organizing the Shakespeare Concert series for a decade now, highlighting some of the many operatic, art song, and chamber music works which use Shakespeare as inspiration. This is the fifth record of his works released, and there are hints of greatness in several of the selections here; from start to finish, Summer’s inventive voice is on display in the wide array of operatic excepts and songs. Yet, the sublime source material is often unintelligible (owing to both singers’ diction or lack thereof and text setting), and the poor physical packaging seems designed to drive potential listeners to a mp3 download situation rather than an actual CD.

Baritone Chad Sloan opens the record with villainous Claudius’ first monologue from Hamlet, “With Mirth in Funeral;” it begins with rhythmic tattoo suggesting Claudius’ deception (brilliantly played by pianist Miroslav Sekera), and his artifice is perfectly captured in the final repeated text “for all, our thanks,” as he speaks with the royal “we.” A later aria “He Shall With Speed to England” has a more Impressionist tint, as Claudius hesitatingly broods over Hamlet’s apparent madness. Sloan has excellent diction, and with his lithe and even voice sings the material perfectly, though it might be nice to have a Claudius with more age and baritonal colorings in characterization of the voice.

Summer includes two selections by other poets: “On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton and “Leda and the Swan” by William Butler Yeats. Milton was follower of Shakespeare (whoever he may have been), and thus is a logical inclusion, and Andrea Chenoweth’s beautiful, light voice is sweetly echoed in the string accompaniment played by the Kalmia String Quartet. The rich voice of mezzo Kellie Van Horn brings beautiful coloration to Yeats’ sonnet, but the rhymes of the sonnet are lost and the climactic line “so mastered by the brute blood of the air” is rendered unintelligible with strings playing at fortissimo.

The selection from Summer’s chamber opera The Tempest, “Full Fathom Five,” has a fantastic and mysterious ostinato in the piano, with low, descending notes suggesting the depths of the sea and also the mysteries awaiting Ferdinand on the shores of the island. Summer cleverly uses a quintuplet figure for Ariel’s theme, and the line “of his bones are of coral made” is a gorgeous chromatic and delicately ethereal moment. Tenor Justin Vickers sings Ferdinand with a lovely tone reminiscent of Peter Pears, while Van Horn’s sings vividly to portray the trickster spirit of Ariel.

Following along with the text of Sonnet 3, one might be surprised to hear a portion of the text sung in reverse before commencing the normal order. This mirroring device nicely captures the looking glass of Shakespeare’s sonnet, and the accompaniment of string quartet churns along in a pleasant manner but occasionally obscures the delivery of the text. Summer interestingly sets some of the sonnets for two voices; the single speaker and the presumed audience of these texts have been subject of much scholarly discourse. Summer’s interpretation of Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) is the best of these, driving and intense for “Love’s not time’s fool” and turning dulcet as Chenoweth and Van Horn sing of the “rosy lips and cheeks” of the lovers. Yet even with this famous text, the singers’ diction is unclear and overpowered by the quartet. Chenoweth and tenor Justin Vickers fair better on their paired Sonnets 97 and 98, which merge in a beautiful scena closing with some truly striking string writing.

The back of the CD cover instructs the listener to insert the CD “in your computer to access study scores, extended liner notes, and more.” “Extended” implies the physical liner notes have some minimal information, but in fact, there is nothing but the text selections included there, and a handful of mistakes (Sonnet III is attributed to Milton) mar it, and no indication of the sources for the opera excerpts or even the fact that they are excerpts. The Adobe Flash document included on the CD is full of thoroughly didactic liner notes, hand-written scores to browse, and a number of other extras, but it seems incongruous to have to sit at a computer in order to fully understand and appreciate music devoted to Elizabethan-era poetics. In spite of these issues, Shakespeare’s Memory is an intriguing show of Summer’s style and viewpoint, and hints at the myriad possibilities for expression within these texts, and being able to browse through the composer’s scores is a real treat.