May 2013 Gramophone: Shakespeare’s Memory

By Laurence Vittes

“21st-century world of kaleidoscopic influences (like a beautifully transformed Schubert)”

approaching 60, the American composer Joseph Summer continues to pursue his Shakespeare Concerts dream.  In seven seasons since 2001, more than 20 of Summer’s settings, from sonnets to complete scenes from the plays, have have been premiered in venues in and around Boston, with accompaniment including piano, string quartet, and orchestra.

Summer’s richly tonal music is always lyrically expressive and occasionally piquant due to an occasionally eccentric pace, and is also rich in instrumental and vocal riffs of the most fetching kind.  The poems by Shakespeare, with two by Milton and one by Yeats, are are set with an ear as much for the music of poetry as for the music itself, which lives in an entirely personal, 21st-century world of kaleidoscopic influences (like a very beautifully transformed Schubert), affects and impulses, all mounted on spacious structures in which the singers often don’t enter until a song has been generously introduced.

Towards the end, for a change of pace, harpsichordist Ian Watson plays a splendid William Byrd march, then back to Summer to conclude with the glorious second movement from his String Quartet in C major (the title track) and the magical mystery sounds of ‘if by your art’ from soprano Maria Ferrante and harpist Lydie Hartelova. While the singers are being earnest, and occasionally the women are finding a sumptuous comfort zone, the excellent Kalmia Quartet add just the requisite bite that makes the music pulse and come alive.

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