Author: Berg, Gregory
Date published: November 1, 2011
Journal code: JRLS
Letting Escape A Song . . . Art Songs of Judith Cloud. Eileen Strempel, Deborah Raymond, sopranos; Judith Cloud, mezzo soprano; Ricardo Pereira, tenor; Tod Fitzpatrick, baritone; Robert Mills, Rita Borden, piano; Jeremy Reynolds, clarinet; Kenneth Meyer, guitar. (Summit DCD 562; 65:22)
Quatre mélodies de Ronsard. "Quand je te vois, seule . . ." "Bonjour, mon coeur," "À sa guitare," "Je suis homme, né pour mourir. " Four Songs of the Heart. "Lament," "Nocturn," "Purify," "The Healing Spring." De Amor Oscuro: "me diste una canasta de manzanas," "desde que te conoscí en el camino." Three Songs from "Gleanings": "Anxiety," "The Small Girl, Long Since Old," "Not To Be Taken Internally." Três Canções. "O Canto da Juriti," "Poema," "Soneto de Separação." Four Sonnets by Pablo Neruda: "If your eyes were not the color of the moon," "Your hand flew from my eyes into the day," "Maybe-though I do not bleed-I am wounded," "And now you're mine. Rest with your dream in my dream." Songs of Need and Desire: "Sonnet (1928)," "Not in Time," "Lyric 4."
When one attends a NATS conference, it is impossible to take in all of the wonderful singing and great music that is offered up like an impossibly extravagant banquet, and it is not uncommon for an attendee to stagger away in exhilarated exhaustion over all he has heard performed. Under such circumstances, it is no small feat for a particular performer to make a deep and lasting impression, and to do so time and time again is especially noteworthy. Composer and singer Judith Cloud has accomplished such a feat on the strength of her beautifully crafted compositions and her accomplished singing of them. Whenever she takes the stage, one senses an uncommon, hushed attentiveness in the room, as though everyone gathered expects to experience something remarkable . . . and they always do.
Judith Cloud is that rare sort of triple threat who is a first rank song composer, a gifted and busy mezzo soprano soloist, and a highly regarded voice teacher who is currently Coordinator of Voice at Northern Arizona University. She began composing music in 1974, but says that she began to gain real confidence as a composer only in the early 1990s with the great success of her magnificent cantata Feet of Jesus. Since then she has gone on a creative tear, crafting an impressive array of solo songs and choral works as well as purely instrumental works that have solidified her stature as one of our country's most distinctive musical voices.
This release showcases seven vocal works that Cloud composed between 2006 and 2008. They were carefully and even lovingly selected in consultation with the composers good friend Carol Kimball, who also penned the illuminating liner notes for the disk. Together they are representative of Clouds intelligence and sensitivity as a composer, as well as of the impressive range of her work. These songs also inspire fine performances from the four guest singers for whom they were painstakingly crafted and who obviously relish the opportunity to record works that they helped to premiere. But with all due respect to these gifted artists, the most thoroughly satisfying singing here is done by Ms. Cloud herself, in two different song sets that she actually composed for other singers. She is quoted in the liner notes as saying that the experience of singing her own songs is "like being in two places at the same time," and indeed we find ourselves doubly impressed by her dual excellence as both composer and singer.
She is clearly a composer who cares about and responds powerfully to fine texts, and this is especially evident, interestingly enough, in the songs that are not in English. The disk opens with a setting of four poems by Pierre de Ronsard, a French poet of the sixteenth century. Cloud sets these texts with unerring clarity as well as keen responsiveness to their emotional complexity. In the first song, the singer sees someone he cares about sitting alone and he does not know exactly what he should say or do. We both hear and feel the depth of longing in the throbbing rhythmic pulse of the piece, while the uncertainty felt by the singer is tellingly conveyed in the exquisitely complex chords resting just beneath the vocal line. The second song, "Bonjour mon coeur," begins with almost frantic fervor, which quickly gives way to a gentler, more tender greeting, showing us two sides of the same emotional devotion. In "À sa guitare," Cloud suggests rather than imitates the sound of a guitar in the piano part, and that proves to be a brilliant choice for this understated song about "beau malheur" (beautiful unhappiness), with its achingly long, unadorned melodic lines. Cloud saves some of her most restless music for the final song of the set, which wrestles with the place of both life and death in our lives. Baritone Tod Fitzpatrick sings richly and expressively.
So does tenor Ricardo Pereira in two different song sets. The first is a colorful setting of two poems by Chicano writer Francisco X. Alarcón, while the second features three twentieth century poems from the singer's homeland of Brazil. Cloud taps into the authentic rhythmic soul of these texts to bring them thrillingly to life, and Pereira responds in kind with impassioned and powerful singing.
One of the most intriguing stories we're told is of a poet named Betty Andrews, who was also a writer for such popular Westerns as Bonanza and Gunsmoke. It is difficult to square that information with the sophisticated poems that Cloud set for soprano Deborah Raymond. These songs are written in a more flamboyant, operatic style and are delivered with a vivid sense of involvement and exciting if occasionally squally singing. The combination of voice, piano, and obbligato clarinet is especially effective in the first song, "Anxiety," but through all three songs the combination of lines and colors is delicious. The disk closes with three superbly written songs for soprano and guitar, including a setting of a Perry Brass poem which yields this disk's title, "letting escape a song." Cloud writes beautifully for guitar and the sparkle of such an accompaniment draws truly lovely singing from soprano Eileen Strempel.
As for Cloud herself, we are treated to her heartfelt, touching singing in two song sets that are as fine as anything she has written. Four Songs of the Heart features texts by British poet Kathleen Raine that are rich with images of hills, storms, stars, rain, waves, and more. Especially lovely is the second song, "Nocturn," whose title refers to a portion of the Roman Catholic service of matins. There is a sense of both the ancient and the very new in Cloud's breathtaking music, which she sings beautifully. Also note how she begins the third song of the set, "Purify," with the spare sound of unaccompanied voice, which draws us in like nothing else could Carol Kimball calls the fourth and final song "a lyric benediction," and no description could be more apt. Last but by no means least is the composer's second set of songs based on sonnets by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. These are passionate texts for which Cloud serves up some of her richest and most moving music.
The singers could not deliver the kind of performances they do without the assured work of their collaborators. Pianists Robert Mills and Rita Borden are attentive and sensitive partners and make even the most difficult music sound astonishingly easy. Clarinetist Jeremy Reynolds contributes greatly to the beauty of Three Songs from "Gleanings" with playing that sounds almost vocal at times. Special praise goes to guitarist Kenneth Meyer, whose lovely playing actually makes us feel a bit cheated that there aren't more than three songs with guitar for us to enjoy here. Fortunately, that is likely to be the only complaint that anyone could possibly have about this remarkable tribute to one of our most accomplished composers.