Few musical forms have grown more obscure in today’s culture than the art song. Canonical songs and song cycles by the likes of Schubert and Rachmaninoff remain popular in the classical music world, but a recording of 20th-century examples like Out of the Shadows: Rediscovered American Art Songs is a welcome rarity.
This labor of love by soprano Lisa Delan and pianist-arranger Kevin Korth, with contributions from celebrated nightclub cellist Matt Haimovitz, unearths songs by American composers with distinct sensibilities: Paul Bowles, Stephen Paulus, Norman Dello Joio, Randall Thompson, even John Kander (of Cabaret fame) and more.
Liner notes give useful background on the composers, some of whom were unfamiliar to me, like Paul Nordoff, the music therapist most of whose songs weren’t published in his lifetime. Four of the six Nordoff selections here have never been recorded before. Their joyous, theatrical melodies begin the album brightly, with text by poets Conrad Aiken and Elinor Wylie among others.
Paul Bowles is better known, today at least, for his books than for his music. But then, Tennessee Williams is far better known for his plays than his poems. For his “Blue Mountain Ballads” Bowles set sad-sensual poems by Williams to rich, bluesy music. The results suggest Gershwin-era plantation chic, but the simple beauty of the music overcomes the dated tone of some of the poems.
Delan’s direct, humanistic approach strikes just the right balance between liquid emotion and straightforward braininess throughout the album, in Bowles’s Southern pictures as well as the modernistic angularily of Stephen Paulus’s settings of Japanese tanka poems.
There’s a warm, intriguing homeyness to the new exoticized settings of three traditional songs (“Auld Lang Syne, “Shenandoah,” “Home Sweet Home”) to which Haimovitz adds humming cello lines. Gordon Getty’s spare, soft take on “Shenandoah” is an especially enlightening unpacking of earthy folk material.
Composer John Duke, another composer unknown to me, set poems by e.e. cummings in highly illustrative if not quite programmatic style. The fun Delan and Korth have with these contrasts effectively with the tense, mournful “Three Songs of Adieu” by Norman Dello Joio, and with John Kander’s setting of “A Letter from Sullivan Ballou,” the Union army major who wrote his wife in 1861 just days before he was mortally wounded in the Battle of Bull Run. Delan sings Ballou’s loving words and Kander’s equally loving melody with exquisite grace, making this piece the emotional heart of the album.
But the most beautiful works on the album are the three compact but substantial songs by Randall Thompson at the end. All three have a religious aura, though only one sets a Biblical text. They seem to concentrate the creative and interpretive powers of both singer and pianist. I hadn’t heard them before, and I found them so rich with musical meaning that they ended before I wanted them to.
“Let us walk in the white snow in a soundless space; With footsteps quiet and slow, At a tranquil pace,” begins the Elinor Wylie poem setting that ends the album – and that also, as Delan says in the liner notes, inspired it in the first place. Tranquility is too rare these days. There’s food for thought and reflection in these songs that most listeners will have never heard, and Delan and Korth’s deep understanding of them is evident in the recording. The tranquility to be found here is something to be grateful for too.