RECORDS / Up front with the notes that tell: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on composers who have ways with words and singers with a feel for colour

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The Independent Culture
HARBISON: Simple Daylight.

Words from Paterson.

Piano Quintet

Dawn Upshaw, Sanford Sylvan,

Gilbert Kalish, Boston

Symphony Chamber Players

(Elektra Nonesuch

7559 79189 2)

'FOR a growing number of people, John Harbison has become the composer-in-residence for our lives.' Only an American CD-note could pitch an opener like that. But grammar apart, I'm beginning to see what the writer means. For the last decade or so, we have - we're told - been seeing a reaction against 'solipsistic modernism'. What has emerged in its place, however, has frequently been mannerism, hypnotic repetition, frozen gestures. The new new music may be easier to listen to, but in essence it's even more impersonal than the old.

John Harbison is quietly different. His manner of address is open without being naive, direct without being unsophisticated, personal without being egocentric. He is obviously aware of what his American contemporaries are doing - the not quite regularly repeating rhythms in the accompaniments of the Words from Paterson song cycle are at least half-familiar, though the unforced eloquence of the vocal writing is not. It was the second cycle, though, Simple Daylight, that lured me back, perhaps partly for Dawn Upshaw's shapely, very expressive singing, but largely because these tiny settings are so musically inviting.

The final number, 'Odor', is something very rare in contemporary vocal music - a real song, and one which would fit very effectively into many a recital. The Piano Quintet is in many ways the most personal work of the three, dark at its heart, heavy with a sense of loss, but far from exhibitionist. The final Elegia reminded me of the Janacek of In the Mists - right down to the strangely unsettling bird-call. The performance sounds first-class. SJ

JOHN HARBISON is a very 'up-front' composer (well, he is American). He says what he means, and means what he says. With every new piece I hear, the feeling is that only these particular notes will do - no others. How often can one truthfully say that these days?

It is very specific, very explicit music, particularly when related to words. William Carlos Williams' words in Paterson look back from old age in an absorbing stream of consciousness, an intermingling of art, life and nature with sights and scents related to half-remembered experiences. Not nearly as pretentious as it sounds. Music and text lend purpose and energy to each other, the instrumental colours are strikingly well heard - in a constant state of invention (coarse russet hues colour the outdoor elements).

Harbison is a natural word- setter: the words speak. In Simple Daylight - reflections on a lost love - he will elevate an emotion by sending one word off on a soul-baring melisma. Michael Fried's poems are honest to a fault, and Harbison is at pains to keep then that way. As ever, Dawn Upshaw inhabits and projects the work as though everything depends upon it. The Quintet is from earlier (1981), music with a past and a future. The final bars of its powerful, explosive Elegia are at once an expiration and a new beginning. ES

WOLF: Goethe Songs

Wolfgang Holzmair,

Thomas Palm

(Collins 14022: live recording)

TO hear Hugo Wolf's Harfenspieler or Ganymed songs after Schubert's settings of the same texts is to realise that there's no one 'authentic' musical response to a great poem. Goethe's old harpist is a gloomy soul whichever way you look at him, but Wolf tunes his anguish and his isolation differently - more concentration on the import of individual words, and less of Schubert's sustained songfulness.

Wolfgang Holzmair responds to this closely, with feeling, without overburdening the poignant moment - a delicate balancing act, but he carries it off impressively almost throughout this recorded recital. Almost? Well, there's a cutting edge in his voice, which can be very appropriate in more darkly impassioned numbers, but is Komm, Liebchen, Komm . . . quite the place for it? The talk of power has to be touched with tenderness, unless Holzmair is trying to make a point about power and sex - but even then I think there could be more sex.

Otherwise this is excellent Lieder singing, with intensity, a good tonal palette, and intelligence that doesn't advertise itself. Holzmair is well accompanied and - considering this is a live event - well recorded, though it's a shame his voice has to go stereo channel-hopping at the beginning of the third Harfenspieler song. SJ

WOLFGANG HOLZMAIR: mark the name well. This engaging young Austrian baritone has a way with words, and words are what these bite-sized dramas from Wolf and Goethe are all about. It's Holzmair's ability to lift and intensify individual words and phrases, to soften or harden his tone according to the dictates of mood and emotion, that makes his singing so involving.

His bright tenorial baritone might possibly be found wanting in the darker casting of the 'Harper' songs, intense studies in loneliness and destitution. But he more than compensates with numbingly plaintive colours, just as he flattens his pitch and toys erratically with rhythm in the drunken songs, or lightens and refreshes his touch. Ganymed deploys his most elevated head tone, Anakreons Grab is sweeter and sadder for its restraint, and his comic facility has a field day with Epiphanius, Goethe's rewriting of the Nativity - a one-man concert party. ES