Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0010909, Thu, 13 Jan 2005 14:21:43 -0800

Music based in Nabokov poem
EDNOTE. bOTH OF THE MEN REFERRED BELOW BENNETT LERNER (Thailand) & Christopher Berb (Paris) are (or were) longtime subscribers to NABOKV-L.

Eloquent melodies
Bangkok Post - Bangkok,Thailand
One of the selections Lerner played, Restoration, a ``song transcription'' of a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, became particularly interesting with further ...


Eloquent melodies
14 January 2005
Last updated 2:10 AM Thai local time

A few weeks ago in writing about a recorded recital by pianist Bennett Lerner of music by his friends I mentioned that hearing some pieces by the American composer Christopher Berg was for me one of the collection's special pleasures. One of the selections Lerner played, Restoration, a ``song transcription'' of a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, became particularly interesting with further listenings.

The piece was a purely instrumental realisation of the Nabokov poem, with the melodic line following the rhythm and emotional inflection of the text. In an email correspondence with Lerner I mentioned that although I liked the piece very much, I couldn't discern the flow of the words with any clarity in the music. He sent me a copy of the score, in which the words are printed above the melodic line, to be heard in the performer's mind but not sung.

After following it a few times, I was no longer able to listen to the music without mentally hearing the words, and Berg's skill in setting poetic texts, even when they were silent in performance, seemed especially impressive.

Here is a CD programme made up completely of vocal works by Christopher Berg. In the notes to the disc the annotator writes that Berg is first and foremost a composer of songs. A short introduction in the same booklet written by the composer himself concerning the song sequence, Hommage a Francis Poulenc, states that, ``echos of Poulenc run rampant through my music, for which I make no apologies. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.''

They can certainly be heard in some of these songs, which never sound like outright Poulenc imitations but often glide along on the kind of genial, free-flowing, often slightly wistful melodies that the older composer seemed to be able to spin out so effortlessly.

You'll notice this right at the beginning of the opening work on the programme, Les loisirs de la poste (``Postal Pastimes''), a series of very brief settings, none even a minute long, of four-line poems by Mallarme sent as postcard texts to famous artists, writers, and composers. ``Whistler'', the first played here, has an especially strong Poulenc accent.

But while listening to the the most imposing work on the programme, the cantata, Portrait en miniature de Madame de Sevigne, I forgot all about Poulenc. It sets six magnificently characterful texts drawn from letters written by Madame de Sevigne between 1668 and 1694.

In her uniquely eloquent way, the writer reflects on subjects ranging from superstitious reactions to the comet of 1681 to a gloomy mood brought on by rainy weather to the magnificent food she is enjoying in the countryside to the inevitability and unfairness of death.

In a note concerning this remarkable piece, Berg writes that while he was composing it, he witnessed the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City from less than a mile away.

He doesn't tell in which order the pieces were written, but the experience certainly must have influenced his decision to end the cantata with a beautifully somber setting of a passage (from comparatively early in her life) in which Mme de Sevigne writes: ``I find myself in the midst of an undertaking that overwhelms me: I was launched on life without my consent; I have to leave it and that does me in. And just how will I leave it? Am I worthy of heaven? Or only fit for hell? What an alternative! What a predicament! I am engulfed by these thoughts, and I find death so terrible that I late life more for leading me there than for the thorns one encounters along the way...''

The music here usually catches the character of the text perfectly, as in the passage where Mme de Sevigne mocks the shocked gossip unleashed by a certain marriage. Berg scores it for the entire trio of singers, whose vocal lines chatter and pile on top of each other as they break the juicy news. There are other times, though, when I thought that the music tended to gild the lily.

Writing of the tendency people have to find personal portents in celestial phenomena, Mme de Sevigne writes, ``human pride does indeed honour itself in believing that there are great doing among the stars when one has to die.'' Berg gives this a rather grandiose setting, placing stress on the human pride. But can't it be heard as a tart and ironic commentary that would have come across more pungently with an understated musical setting?

The lighter works based on Robert Desnos's little surrealistic poems for children (written, however, in the concentration camp where he died), and of Eric Satie's sardonic reflections on the comparative intelligence of animals and humans are fun.

But for me the finest music on this programme is the concluding setting of Desnos's La moisson (``Harvest''), another meditation on the incomprehensibility of death, both personal and cultural, that the poet was experiencing and witnessing during his last days in Terezin.

It is beautifully and very movingly sung here by tenor Scott Murphree. If only all of the singing on this disc were on that level! No complaints about baritone Richard Lalli, whose interpretation of one of the Mme de Sevigne settings is one of the disc's highlights. But soprano Tobe Malawista's voice often coarsens and wobbles to the point where it compromises the effect of the music.

It seems ungrateful to point this out because her role in the creation of the programme was a central one. It was she who chose the passages from Mme de Sevigne's huge correspondence that Berg set, and who recommended Desnos's children's poem collection, Chantefleurs et Chantefables to the composer as possible material for musical treatment (Lutoslawski set a different selection of poems from it for soprano and orchestra).

Still, Un Americain a Paris will be a happy discovery for any listener with a strong enough interest in modern vocal music to have read this far into this review. It can be purchased online from amazon.com and other internet-based sources.