CD Review: Innocence Lost: The Berg-Debussy Project, Albany Records Release. Troy 1113

“a substantial and adventurous undertaking, beautifully realized, and always thought provoking… The performances are exquisite.”

This is an extremely creative and literate production. Soprano Mary Nessinger and pianist Jeanne Golan took as “templates” two song cycles from the cusp of the 19th to 20th centuries, Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder, and then asked 10 contemporary composers to write songs that responded to each number in the original cycles. The results are stimulating, often engaging… Every composer obviously took up the challenge with seriousness and good humor. And many of the songs are musically attractive and/or memorable. I found David Del Tredici’s breathless nursery-rhyme setting of a meditation on infinity to be sweet, poignant, and deliberately over-the-top, as is usually the case in his work. Joe Kerr has by far the most “extreme” stylistic work, which is a very convincing evocation of a Gershwin brothers’ song, with lyrics that seem to have been written by a contemporary Brooklyn hipster. Jorge Martin goes overboard in another direction, with extravagant Latinisms. Lee Hyla sets Neruda within a spacious realm of flickering atonal gestures that are calming rather than expressionistic. The new “cycles” are distinctly postmodern in that they swing wildly from one voice/style/language to another, dependent on the profile of each composer. This may not create great coherence, but it also allows for surprise and creative friction. Beyond the composers’ response to the text, I don’t feel as strong an attempt to reinterpret Debussy’s or Berg’s actual music in the new pieces. Eleanor Sandresky’s Rimbaud setting evokes aspects of impressionist practice most evidently, but for my money, the real bull’s eye is Sebastian Currier’s setting of T. S. Eliot’s “The Nymphs Have Departed” in response to Debussy-Louÿs’s “Le tombeau des Naïades.” This piece not only suggests the death of mythologies in a modern age (referring to the same mythological being as the original), but the music is plaintive, chant-like, somber, almost archaic, in a way that seems a direct descendant of Debussy without quoting him.

While not as obviously connected, it does strike me that most of these pieces do reflect a certain connection to the previous fin de siecle, in that their language seems to mix aspects of tonal Romanticism with modernist chromatic expressionism. Cipullo, Moe, Del Tredici, and Martin tend more towards the former; Rothman, Weesner, and Hyla tend towards the latter. The lines aren’t hard and fast, though; there’s always blending between the elements, and some feel a little further afield in different ways (Sandresky, Kerr, and Currier, as noted above)…

The performances are exquisite. I’d first heard Nessinger in a Lee Hyla disc a few issues back, and was stunned by her theatrical instincts and risk taking. In this recital, her diction is flawless, and she can shift vocal color and delivery (including degree of vibrato) subtly or dramatically to fit the interpretive needs of each piece… Jeanne Golan is a superb partner in the project, and writes highly literate program notes to boot.

…this is a substantial and adventurous undertaking, beautifully realized, and always thought provoking.

by Robert Carl

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