CD Review by Alex Skovron (v.8#2, p.31, Summer 2000) of

'HELENE WILLIAMS [soprano] SINGS MORE SONGS OF LOVE.' With Leonard Lehrman, piano. Music by members of Long Island Composers Alliance (LICA): Denise Broadhurst, Ralph Alan Dale, Daniel Dorff, Janis Sabatino Hills, , Leonard Lehrman, Joel Mandelbaum, Angelo Musolino, Elie Siegmeister, Hale Smith, Mira J. Spektor, Raymond VunKannon. Capstone CPS 8667 (59:21)
[heading as it appeared, corrected, in v.9#1, p. 34]

"Helene Williams Sings More Songs of Love" is certainly an impressive recording, a kaleidoscope of colours, styles and moods. The two Leonard Lehrman songs with harpsichord make effective openers, and in the well-known Herrick poem I particularly enjoyed the sense of tussle in the dialogue between the melody and the tracery woven around it by the slightly sinister accompaniment. The first of the two Leigh Hunt settings by Lehrman is spare, wistful and poignant, while the second, "Abou Ben Adhem", offered a special delight because it was one of my earliest experiences of English poetry (I was introduced to it in primary school) and I don't believe I've ever heard it put to music, though it must have been set by several composers; Lehrman's modal version, restrained and dreamlike, is quite enchanting - and enchantingly sung. His Mascha Kaléko setting I found moving in a different way, and the pathos of the piece was heightened for me by the composer's non-literal translation of (especially) the seventh line, "If you've had enough of me". Then came the three Dickinson poems, with lush darker textures on the piano: from the restless turbulence of #937, through the sweet swing and elegant sarcasm of #288, to the romantic windblown Latin shades of #249. The three bawdy miniatures are great fun, and show off Helene Williams's vocal versatilities from a quivering new angle.

Siegmeister's three settings are a study in contrasts, all of them with a strong American flavour. The fetching Edward Mabley number reminded me a little of Gershwin; the rendering of "Anne Rutledge" (Leo Daniels) is finely measured and its musical/narrative curve beautifully realized; while the Langston Hughes piece has the quality of a standard, with the teasingly non-committal intro soon resolving into a crisp forward momentum that characterizes the rest of the song (the whistle adds a cute touch). Daniel Dorff's setting of Jessica Greenbaum is at once lyrical and stirring; and Denise Broadhurst's two love vignettes make a telling and atmospheric pair. In the Joel Mandelbaum setting, I was struck by the effectiveness of the subdued vocal approach to the Millay poem and its gradual dramatic buildup, with the few higher moments (at "death" near the end of the sonnet's octave, and then within the sestet) persuasively placed - with the possible exception of the first statement in the closing line, which I might have preferred to sound just a fraction less dramatic.

Lehrman's a cappella setting of "A Red, Red Rose" by Burns is lovely, and the folklike purity of Helene Williams's singing resonates hauntingly. Angelo Musolino's version projects a very different, contemporary idiom; its logic is that of the 20th-century song, and how interestingly that changes the poem - right through to the brief solo-piano interlude that only just seems to restrain itself from branching out into a full-blooded jazz jaunt! (And I love that moment when Helene pulls right back at "love" in the second-last line.) The Scottish song by Janis Sabatino Hills has a somewhat roving quality, almost rhapsodic in parts, with some intriguing musical ambiguities - and is framed at both ends by that tripping melodic figure so characteristic of a Highland air.

Raymond VanKannon's poem combines pastel colours with a vivid sensibility, and I thought the understatement kept the song nicely focused.

Then the mood changes yet again in the Hale Smith pop songs, with their laid-back romance and playful protestations, and (in the third) a dose of Latin possessiveness. Mira Spektor's pieces strike me as very New York: Lehrman's arrangement of her gentle but compelling come-on, with its catchy melody, creates a rather nostalgic mood; her wildly contrasting June Siegel song is irresistibly witty, with music and vocal antics to match - oddly enough, a few snippets called to my mind both "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific and "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" from Carousel. Finally, the high-jinks of Ralph Alan Dale's "Il Bacio" duet make for a hilarious finale, though I felt that the text would have benefited from a stronger last line (perhaps breaking the pattern in some way) to clinch the humour. And yes, that really is Leonard Lehrman singing the man's part!

All in all, a most enjoyable musical and poetic excursion. Lehrman's piano (and harpsichord) work is terrific - cogent, expressive, and as shifting and varied as the material. Helene Williams's voice has a distinctive allure, and is recorded to very good effect. It is also extremely flexible. She can tint the lyrics with a mellow buoyancy, impart an ironic edge, even ham it up when required, and then turn around and imbue a melody with a fluency and grace that can enthrall the listener.

[Mr. Skovron, based in Melbourne, Australia, is an editor, critic and author of three books of poetry. His review of 'HELENE WILLIAMS SINGS SONGS OF LOVE' appeared in the Summer 2000 issue (V8#2) of NMC]

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