United States Various, ‘The World at War: In Memoriam I & II’: Brooklyn Art Song Society, First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, New York. Filmed on 7.10.2022 and 4.11.2022 and available on Brooklyn Art Song Society Digital Concert Hall. (RP)
The Brooklyn Art Song Society has opened its 2022/23 season with ‘The World at War’, a series of six concerts devoted to songs associated with the great global conflicts of the twentieth century. The first two concerts, entitled ‘In Memoriam’, are now available on the Brooklyn Art Song Society Digital Concert Hall.
Expertly and sensitively curated by Michael Brofman, BASS’s founder and artistic director, the two recitals contain music and words by men whose lives were impacted by World War I. Some fought and died at the front, while those who returned were often haunted for the rest of their lives by what they experienced. There are also works by composers who observed from a distance, separated from the conflict by location or time and, of course, some who were just unlucky.
Texts, biographical information and insights into the music afford the opportunity to explore the stories of the composers and poets in depth. However, none of this is essential to enjoy the performances of these songs born of innocence and despair, performed by an exceptional cadre of artists. High sound quality is essential, and BASS delivers on that account.
The first recital opened with baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco’s witty and sophisticated performance of Francis Poulenc’s Banalités. Poulenc was conscripted into the French army near the end of the war and served time on the front. The poet whose words Poulenc set was Guillaume Apollinaire, who was wounded during the war, only to die during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
Drafted into the Austrian army in 1915, Alban Berg hoped that the war would cleanse Europe of the rot that had beset it for decades. Having served for eleven months, he was discharged from active duty after a mental breakdown. Baritone Sidney Outlaw found the lyricism in Berg’s Vier Gesänge, which made his performance of them especially satisfying.
Maurice Ravel tried to join the French air force but was rejected due to his age (he was 40) and a health issue. He ultimately became a truck driver, delivering munitions at night under heavy German bombardment. Ravel’s Deux Mélodies hébraïques date from 1914, and mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney was captivating as she sang the beguiling melodies with rich tone and a nuanced approach to musical line.
Returning to Europe from the United States of America, Enrique Granados and his wife drowned after the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1916. His Canciones amatorias date from the prior year. Soprano Amy Owens gave a glowing account of the charming melodies in Granados’s settings of Renaissance love poems.
The only American whose music was featured in the two recitals was Charles Ives. An insurance executive, Ives was too old to serve in the war but was an advocate for insuring soldiers’ lives, which saved innumerable families of veterans from financial ruin. Outlaw captured the solemnity and the heartache of ‘In Flanders Field’, Ives’ setting of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem, written by the Canadian doctor the day after he observed a friend fall in battle.
Pianist Spencer Myer was equally adept at capturing Poulenc’s subtle mood changes and the brilliance and beauty in Granados’s more lively accompaniments, as well as his piece for piano, ‘Los requiebros’, with its fast-changing tempi and colors. Whether playing Berg with crystalline precision or banging away at the piano in Ives’s ‘He is There!’, Michael Brofman was in his element.
The second concert was dedicated to works by British poets and composers. Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen are among the most famous of the War Poets, but countless men, including ordinary soldiers, wrote of the horrors from the trenches, or penned eloquent elegies for the dead. Collectively, they gave voice to the dashed hopes, disillusionment and sorrows of a generation.
Songs by Ivor Gurney and the contemporary British composer Iain Bell were first heard intertwined to create a narrative of a soldier’s tale. Gurney was a poet as well as a composer, who exhibited signs of mental illness before the war, which was exacerbated by being gassed at the front. The three songs by Gurney followed the arc of his life, written when he was a student, a soldier in the trenches and, lastly, while confined to an asylum.
In The Undying Splendor, Bell set selections from an anthology of poems by Sergeant John William Streets, who died on the Somme while going to the aid of a wounded soldier. (The Battle of the Somme was one of the deadliest ever, claiming over one million lives.) Streets’s poems chart the internal journey of a soldier, including his pondering on how history would recall him and his fallen comrades.
Tenor Dylan Morrongiello and baritone Brian James Myer shared duties in the performance of the Gurney and Bell songs. The timbers of their voices were remarkably alike, and each sang with equal intensity.
Thomas Hardy wrote the poem ‘Channel Firing’ in 1914, just prior to the commencement of hostilities in Europe. In addition to expressing his disdain for war, he was prescient in his sense of foreboding that history was about to repeat itself.
Gerald Finzi. who was too young and asthmatic to serve in the First World War, was deeply affected by the death of Ernest Fararr, his teacher, on the Western Front. He set Hardy’s words to music in 1949, when the destruction of the Second World War was still fresh in his and the world’s minds. Myer captured the powerful darkness of the song and gave wonderful characterizations of the animals that appear in it.
Iain Venables’ Through These Pale Cold Days, scored for tenor, viola and piano, was commissioned in conjunction with the centenary commemorations of the Great War and premiered in 2016. Venables set poems by five war poets who range from the famous – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – to the obscure, such as Francis St. Vincent Morris. The most colorful of the lot was Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known as ‘Woodbine Willie’. The Anglican priest and poet dispensed cigarettes as well as comfort to soldiers, and was admired for his bravery under fire while rescuing the wounded.
Morrongiello captured the darkness and the lyricism in Venables’s songs, the most poignant of which is ‘Procrastination’, in which a soldier ponders whether he will die before he experiences his youth.
There was poetry in ending ‘In Memoriam’ with George Butterworth’s settings of six songs from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman. Butterworth composed them between1909 and 1911, when he was in his mid-twenties and, five years later, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of the Somme. His body was hastily buried in the side of the trench and never recovered.
Baritone Steven Eddy gave a chilling account of the final song, ‘Is My Team Ploughing?’, a conversation between the living and the dead. However, it was the second of the six, ‘When I Was One-and-Twenty’, in which he captured the innocence and insouciance of a youth that was forever lost for untold millions in the war to end all wars.
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The World at War: In Memoriam I
Poulenc – Banalités / Mario Diaz-Moresco (baritone), Spencer Myer (piano)
Berg – Vier Gesänge, Op.2 / Sidney Outlaw (baritone), Michael Brofman (piano)
Ives – Three Songs of the War / Sidney Outlaw (baritone), Kate Maroney (mezzo-soprano), Stanichka Dimitrova (violin), Michael Brofman (piano)
Ravel – Deux Mélodies hébraïques / Kate Maroney (mezzo-soprano), Michael Brofman (piano)
Granados – ‘Los requiebros’ (from Goyescas) / Spencer Myer (piano), Canciones amatorias / Amy Owens (soprano), Spencer Myer (piano)
The World at War: In Memoriam II
Gurney – ‘Desire in Spring’, ’Sleep’, ‘By a Bierside’ / Brian James Myer (baritone), Brent Funderburk (piano)
Iain Bell – ‘Lark Above the Trenches’, ‘Comrades’, ‘Gallipoli’ (from The Undying Splendor) / Dylan Morrongiello (tenor), Brent Funderburk (piano)
Finzi – ‘Channel Firing’, Op.16 No.5 (from Before and After Summer) / Brian James Myer (baritone), Brent Funderburk (piano)
Iain Venables – Through These Pale Cold Days, Op.46 / Dylan Morrongiello (tenor), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Brent Funderburk (piano)
Butterworth – Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad / Steven Eddy (baritone), Michael Brofman (piano)