Chiaroscuro. Modern works for soprano and piano

Jane Sheldon, soprano; Zubin Kanga, piano
Classical, New Music
Phosphor records PR0003
Reviewed by , November 1st, 2015

About sixty years ago Theodor W Adorno lamented that ‘modern music is growing old’. As a theorist of an idiosyncratic Marxist bent, Adorno, in his 1949 Philosophie der neuen Musik, had constructed a kind of musical Manichaeism with Schoenberg representing the ‘light’ half of the equation, while Stravinsky was the great heresiarch who had betrayed history and modernity. Adorno would no doubt have approved – as do I – of the inclusion of extracts from Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten on this new release from Jane Sheldon and Zubin Kanga: after all, the CD, Chiaroscuro bills itself as ‘Modern works for soprano and piano’.

Soprano Jane Sheldon

Soprano Jane Sheldon

The Schoenberg songs were completed in 1909 – the point at which the composer became convinced of the historical necessity of atonality – and set poetry by Stefan George, the Austrian symbolist who also provided the text for the epoch-making moment in the contemporary Second String Quartet when the singer ‘feels the air of another planet’ and conventional diatonicism dissolves. Much of Schoenberg’s music from this period conforms to the late Charles Rosen’s view that ‘transforming something that is awkward into something beautiful is absolutely fundamental to Modernism’, but unusually for him, Schoenberg found in the composition of this work a kind of ecstasy, ‘intoxicated by the first words of the text’. This performance reflects that feeling admirably, with Sheldon’s always-accurate soprano negotiating any awkwardness in the vocal lines, whether in expressing the erotic languor of, say, ‘Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide’ or the stark urgency of ‘Jedem Werke bin ich fürder Tot’.

Modern music was growing old, according to Adorno in the 1950s, because Schoenberg’s invention of the twelve-note method was in danger of becoming as rigid – as totalitarian, in fact – as any other system. He was particularly concerned at the totalising principle of integral serialism practised, briefly, by composers like the young Boulez. (Four years before, moreover, Boulez had written an essay tactfully entitled Schoenberg est mort!) At the same time, George Crumb, a young American composer was reaching maturity with a musical language steeped in that of European Modernism. Apparition, dating from 1979 is a multi-movement setting of verses from Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d. Crumb’s musical idioms are astonishingly wide-ranging in this work, from feverishly distorted marches to birdsong. Again Sheldon and Kanga acquit themselves wonderfully, displaying Sheldon’s technical assuredness and Kanga’s artistry at projecting immensely complex music without ever upstaging or drowning out the voice.

Pianist Zubin Kanga

Pianist Zubin Kanga

In Kaija Saariaho’s spare and haunting setting of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Il pleut we experience another instance of the transformation of the awkward into something beautiful, as, against the plainest of regular falling scales, the voice enters with a simple motif beginning on a top A. Few would relish entering on such a high note, and no singer on earth could intelligibly produce the vowels of those two words in that tessitura, but that isn’t the point: Saariaho clearly intends for the voice to heard primarily as an instrument in a way that Schoenberg and Crumb (mostly) do not. Sheldon’s voice, with its purity and iron control over vibrato is perfectly suited to this piece and to its companion, Iltarukous (a setting of early 20th-century Finnish poet Eino Leino) where Kanga delicately evokes the snowy night and night birds.

Sheldon and Kanga are both great advocates of this country’s music and the disc includes two works by Australian composers. Rosalind Page has revisited her 2004 Sonetos del Amor Obscuro, rescoring it for voice and piano. The cycle sets poetry by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca – a formative influence on George Crumb, incidentally, but also the inspiration for a foundational work of Australian music, Richard Meale’s Homage to García Lorca. Page’s musical language, which effectively captures the feel of Lorca’s verse, is the closest to traditional diatonicism of the works discussed (Adorno est mort, after all) and cultivates a distinct Hispanic atmosphere in it use of stylised Iberian dance rhythms, and the frequently placing of the voice in its rich lower register. That is not to say that the music doesn’t also call upon Sheldon to do the stratospheric thing, and for the final line of the fourth sonnet, ‘time will see us destroyed’, she is required to speak, the voice suddenly vulnerable in the void.

Jane Sheldon 3

Adorno famously said some offensively kooky things about popular music, notably jazz; for him high and low art were irreconcilable and he’d have hated the self-consciously polystylistic work, of say, Schnittke. But things have changed in the 46 years since his death, and I’d venture to assert that Australia is a better place for having art-music composers like Daniel Rojas, who can draw on – in this case – indigenous and popular Latin American music as part of his heritage. The resulting fusion with more conventional art-music idioms in Rojas’ Sonata makes for the kind of range of styles we have encountered in the Crumb, but this works entirely in the service of Rojas’ response to Pablo Neruda’s text. Here, as in the Schoenberg and Page, erotic feeling is presented in a variety of poetic images and musical gestures, beginning and ending with snow and encompassing the currents and tides of the ocean; the musical response includes references to shamanic ritual, children’s songs and popular music. Like Saariaho, Rojas occasionally sacrifices the intelligibility of individual syllables to the dramatic effect of a high-lying phrase, but those moments, as we would expect from these performers, are electric. As well as displaying an astonishing compass, Sheldon also gets points for singing with such accurate diction in five languages.

The recording was made at the workshop of Stuart & Sons in Newcastle, NSW, and the astringent sound of the Stuart piano (played ‘straight’ and with the various extended techniques required) is perfect for much for this music, matching the purity of Sheldon’s tone; the rain stick is good too. The engineering and production is crystal clear and Kanga provides excellent liner-notes, as ever. The result is a document of five strong compositional voices – so strong, in fact, that I recommend listening to the works in isolation, partly as one is sympathetically exhausted by the work that we know has gone into each of the performances. All in all, this is clearly the product of two fine and serious artists determined that modern music, while it may age, will do so gracefully.

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