Gramophone: Attractive, Lyrical, Well-Crafted

Music that's attractive, lyrical, witty, as well as well-crafted and idiomatically sung

Libby Larsen, a pupil of Dominick Argento, is a familiar figure on the American musical scene, less so over here. Koch has given us a number of her works in recent years. Her six Sonnets from the Portuguese were written for Arleen Auger not long before her untimely death (Koch, 4/94). More recently, Joel Revzen directed the LSO in a well-received disc of orchestral works (Koch, 2/98). The present collection is similarly attractive. The String Symphony (1998) is nothing if not well-crafted, its coolly elegant (safety-first?) idiom being closer to, say, Ned Rorem than Christopher Rouse. Indeed, it should delight admirers of the familiar classics of English string music. In the almost gracious first movement entitled 'Elegance', Larsen sometimes deploys close-packed blocks of notes within her clearly defined harmonic frame (rather in the manner of Nicholas Maw), but accessibility is all. The central panel, 'Beauty Alone' strikes deepest; the final, designated 'Ferocious Rhythm', is certainly busy, though unlikely to frighten the horses. Two song sequences follow -- one of them, Songs of Light and Love (1998) composed expressly for Benita Valente, a considerable artist with a long track-record in contemporary music. Let's not beat about the bush. Valente is not in the first flush of youth, and so, while she scales down her ample sound effectively enough, one must accept some unevenness. She is right inside the idiom, but hers is not the beautiful voice of Auger. Both sets are bittersweet in mood and remarkable for the sensitivity of the word-setting; this aspect is well served here. Unusually, Songs from Letters (1999) sets correspondence. The letters were sent between 1880 and 1902 by the real-life Calamity Jane to Janey, the daughter she chose not to bring up herself. The songs do not register as the baser sort of Americana, although the archetypes are there in the wide spacing of the chords and the allusion to barroom piano, the latter accompanying the proto-feminist Calamity Jane as she explains that 'Your mother works for a living'. The use of harp occasionally makes for a Brittenish texture, but for the most part we are in more conservative, neo-romantic and defiantly non-minimalist territory. All credit to Larsen for eschewing the fashionable; only the extreme lucidity and economy of the scoring is inescapably of our time. That rare breed, a composer with a sense of humour, she writes genuinely lyrical music, too, something that one cannot take for granted today, even (or perhaps especially) in music intended for the voice. Is the last ounce of personality missing? And does it matter if it is? That's for you to decide. Never mind that Koch tends not to proofread its booklet-notes -- it provides helpful annotations, full texts, fine design and decent sound. Warmly recommended. 

David Gutman