Month: September 2021

  • Juliana Hall Song Cycles


    Bold Beauty: Songs of Juliana Hall
    Molly Fillmore, soprano.
    Elvia Puccinelli, piano.
    Blue Griffin Recording 559
    Total Time:  61:22
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Molly Fillmore debuted in the Met Opera’s latest Ring cycle and continued on to engagements throughout the US, at the Spoleto Festival, and with the Cologne Opera as well.  Her recital here focuses on four song cycles by prolific composer Juliana Hall.  Hall studied with Leon Kirchner and Frederick Rzewski, but it is her las teacher, Dominick Argento, who seems to cast a shadow over the style of vocal writing and harmonic exploration that appears in the three earlier pieces from this collection.

    The opening Letters from Edna (1993) is a beautiful setting of eight letters the poet wrote to family, friends and others and here they have a theatrical quality.  The carefully chosen letters provide a window into the artist’s emotional connections and thoughts.  Musically, Hall uses often rich, touching harmonic language creating a Neo-Romantic atmosphere against the lyrical vocal writing.  There are some more chromatic dissonant passages to address some of the more intense texts.  With some 60 art song cycles to her credit, this release gives listeners a chance to hear her first foray into the genre in Syllables of Velvet, Syllables of Plush (1989).  Letters by Emily Dickinson are the focus of this set of seven songs and provide a window into Hall’s musical language near the beginning of her career.  In Theme in Yellow (1990) is another of these earlier cycles and here Hall pulls together a collection of six poems by Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Carl Sandburg.  These are arranged around the Autumn season with reflections on “Ripe Corn” and “Harvest Gold”.  It is set for mezzo-soprano which would equally lend the sound of the music a warmer quality.  The final work on the album is the more recent Cameos (2018) commissioned by Fillmore.  She also provided the texts for this cycle which explores the work of six female painters whose work seems to also lie at the heart of Hall’s inspiration.  The piece makes for a fine conclusion to this collection, and one suspects a concert performance would include projected images of the works for this piece—though there is no art in the accompanying booklet.

    BGR’s recording perfectly captured a natural sound that images the singer well in the sound picture.  The booklet includes fine notes and complete texts.  Fillmore has a gorgeous, clear voice and a good dramatic quality that makes these songs connect well with the listener.  Elvia Puccinelli proves to be an excellent accompanist here adding additional dramatic flair, but also finding the subtleties in the music where needed.  This makes for a really engrossing collection of music for those interested in the development of the art song.


  • Mozart's Augsburg Fortepiano Experience Revisited


    Mozart: Solo Keyboard Works
    Keiko Shichijo, piano
    Bridge 9570
    Total Time: 76:24
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Musicologists love to speculate about what music sounded like in former eras.  In the Classical Period, in particular historians are given a variety of details about what courts had what instruments and the possible performance practices that may have occurred there.  It is also hard to realize that this could be quite regional which lends a whole other dimension to rediscovering many familiar works.  Mozart’s keyboard music is an endless source of speculation in this regard as artists gain access to the different keyboards developing into the modern piano.  The instruments themselves often have quite distinct characters and sounds which can lead to endless variety as different performers apply their own interpretive skills and techniques to these repertoire pieces.  They do allow us to hear them with new ears and often this can be quite striking.

    For this recording, Keiko Shichijo is performing on a Stein fortepiano ca. 1802 (restored by Sietse Kok).  Mozartean’s may recall that Mozart met Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792) in 1777 while in Augsburg.  Stein’s new piano had an improved action that allowed the hammer to move rapidly to the string allowing for a lighter action translating into a performer’s opportunity to create more subtle performances.  It also made rapid passagework a bit easier.  All told, it allowed for a quite different experience from a traditional harpsichord, though admittedly the instrument does have moments where that ancestor can be discerned in its sound still. The middle register has the most “piano-like” quality.  The restored keyboard here does allow for a crisper sound and one can also hear how one can also shape and add more emotional flexibility in playing.  There is a nice resonant quality to the instrument as well.  Other period pedagogical approaches have also been explored for this performance which makes it a fascinating listen.

    This new collection of Mozart’s keyboard music brings two shorter works and three full sonatas that allow for a blend of technical finesse and poise as well as interpretive flexibility.  The opening Fantasia in d, K. 397 allows for an easing into the sound of the fortepiano that Shichijo is using and that helps set the stage for the rest of the program.  The substantial Rondo in a K. 511 also provides an interesting piece to add some flair. The Sonata in D, K. 311 allows for an “Allegro con spirito” that can move along at a nice clip and there is some rather striking passage work here that helps elevate the performance.  Shichiko’s shaping of phrase and her ability to bring out the accented left-hand material is quite impressive.  Slow movements also have a nice flow and subtle beauty that reaches that sublime quality which is a hallmark of Mozart’s music.  The Sonata in G, K. 283 and Sonata in a, K.310 provide some additional opportunities to hear some of the interesting ways rhythmic vitality can be achieved on this particular instrument.

    Bridge’s production matches the excellent performances here as well.  The accompanying booklet focuses more on the instrument and less on the overall structure of the music to help provide some historical context for Shichijo’s approach.  The performance space captures the sound well with just a touch of room ambience to warm the sound a bit.  The crystalline quality of the instrument does come through well and the repertoire allows ample moments to show off the unique qualities of the instrument itself.  The instrument adds its own character as a result which will likely delight fans of period performance while giving an interesting alternative sound for the more familiar of these sonatas.