Women's Voices. © 2020 Lontano Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Six Composers, Piano, Strings and Voice

ONA JARMALAVIČIŪTĖ listens to works by six female composers

'... performed profoundly ...'


Six composers from different walks of life align their musical expression together, presenting different and elected visions and musical inspirations, using only the same means of expression, which first of all starts with the instrumentation. Each creator explores the opportunities of a subsection of the ensemble, consisting of two voices (soprano Yuhan Lee, baritone Jeremy Huw Williams), piano by Paula Fan, and string quartet - violinists Lauren Rustad Roth and Timothy Kantor, violist Molly Gebrian and cellist Theodore Buchholz. It is a paradox to hear the voice of a baritone recording a CD of women's voices.

Coming from across the world, with interests surpassing cultures and distinctive time periods, each composer on this CD is returning to her own mission and way of being a female composer in the 21st century. They approach the genre of Lied from different perspectives, each reflecting their own vision and understanding on the beauty and power of voice and melodic lineage. Even though there is a common sound of sentimentality, melodicity as well as modality and ease throughout the recording, the eclectic feeling of each composer having their own signature and their own distinctive style makes the CD sound like a pallette of different and yet similar voices of women.

The first four pieces are Shakespeare songs, written by Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy. Taught by Vaughan Williams himself, Elizabeth had a brilliant start to her career which was interrupted by tuberculosis, family issues and war. Today her music is performed in various festivals in Great Britain as well as at the ISCM Music Days. In the songs of Shakespeare are the roots of her nationality and culture, which she grew up and immersed her life with. The texts of Shakespeare - the sonnets Come away, death, The wind and the rain, Take, o take those lips away and King Stephen - were as though given another life, another opportunity to breathe.

Listen — Elizabeth Maconchy: Come away, death (Four Shakespeare Songs)
(track 1, 0:00-0:55) ℗ 2020 Lontano Records Ltd :

The music has added an entirely new level of emotional expression which lies behind the poetry. The songs, from a musical point of view, reflect the most common features of Elizabeth Maconchy's creative work, such as melodic lyricism and expressive harmonic idiom. The composer is known for her vitality and astringency, and this can be felt throughout the recording of these four songs, performed profoundly by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams with Paula Fan providing a piano accompaniment.

The CD's fifth track is a piece called The Swan, coming from a very different and versatile composer, Nicola LeFanu. Being productive and gripped by her profession, and in addition to being a devoted professor at The University of York, Nicola has composed a hundred works for various different media, with diverse scope across various genres - operas, cantatas, etc. This piece paints the scene of a migrating swan, creating beautiful imaginary and reflecting on loneliness and hope with various symbols, such as a star or the swan itself.

Listen — Nicola LeFanu: The Swan
(track 5, 0:00-0:55) ℗ 2020 Lontano Records Ltd :

It works also as a parallel, reflecting on current events of today - such as migrants seeking refuge in other countries. The song is based on a medieval text in both the Latin and English languages. The words were written by St Hilda of Whitby with additional text by Wendy Cope.

The third composer, whose work was presented in the recording, is America-based Welsh composer Hilary Tann. In her pieces, a strong identification with the natural world is felt, permeated with sleazy interest in the music and cultural life of Japan. Her Melangell Variations for soprano and strings are based on a book of poems about Saint Melangell at Pennant Melangell, especially one poem, called The Hare that hides within. An ancient story captures a young female hermit and talks about her way in three pieces - 'The Story'; 'Her Silence'; and 'A cloud of Witnesses'. Welsh poet laureate Gwyneth Lewis received permission to set poems and he chose this poem to be set with the music of Hilary Tann. Her decision to use string quartet instrumentation makes the piece stand out in the context of this recording, since the other pieces are mostly songs for voice and piano.

Listen — Hilary Tann: A Cloud of Witnesses (Melangell Variations)
(track 8, 0:00-1:00) ℗ 2020 Lontano Records Ltd :

The ninth piece is also unique in its instrumentation since no human voice can be heard. Mainstream composer Eleanor Alberga comes from Jamaica and, after finishing her studies at London's Royal Academy, she is proud of a rich catalog of original works - her pieces were commissioned for the BBC Proms and Royal Opera. All her work is known for being emotionally impactful and brilliantly colored. Her composition on this CD delves into the soul's expression and aspects of human soul perceptions realized through piano solo playing. Paula Fan presents the improvisation that feels impressionistic, dreamy, pastel and melodic. The Soul's Expression is based on female poets Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and finally George Eliot, who is one of the composer's favorite authors.

Listen — Eleanor Alberga: The Soul's Expression
(track 9, 9:57-10:47) ℗ 2020 Lontano Records Ltd :

The Girl by the Ocean is another piano piece by another composer from Poland, Barbara Jazwinski, today based in New York and New Orleans, where she is the head of the University. The academic responsibilities don't stop her from an active performing and composing career. Her music today has been heard around the world. In 2015 she created The Girl by the Ocean for her daughter Maria Jazwinski. On this recording, the performance is again made by the hands of pianist Paula Fan, bringing a beautiful, visual, impressionistic interpretation that created a really special atmosphere.

Listen — Barbara Jazwinski: The Girl by the Ocean
(track 10, 2:11-2:58) ℗ 2020 Lontano Records Ltd :

The last composition is made by Grammy-awarded British choral music composer Cecilia McDowall. The trilogy of three small pieces is called If I touched the earth and the smaller parts are named 'clown in the moon' with a delicate beautiful melancholic expression, and dream-like imagery. The vocal line feels intense and passionate, whose contrast comes from a sense of desperation. The piece 'Being but men' reflects on a conversation between the pragmatic older self and fearless joyful child. The bass line here marks the footsteps of man alongside upward motifs in the accompaniment. The last song, 'Here in this Spring' is more joyful, reflecting the appreciation of spring each year and season.

Listen — Cecilia McDowall: Here in this spring (If I touched the earth)
(track 13, 2:01-2:59) ℗ 2020 Lontano Records Ltd :

In conclusion, it could be noted that such a predictable and encouraging meeting of British composers shows unity in diversity, expression of differences of creative ways with the same means of expression, such as the genre of Lied or the miniature, and with the ensemble of piano, strings and voice. The similar yet individual explorations are set together as a palette of reflections on united women's voices.

Copyright © 27 November 2020 Ona Jarmalavičiūtė,
London UK








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