Maureen Batt’s Walter Scott Adventure

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SCHUBERT: Ellens Gesang I, II, III (“Ave Maria”).1,5 Bootgesang.2,5 Coronach.4 Normans Gesang.3,5 Lied des Gefangenen Jägers.3,5 RYAN: Lady of the Lake1,3,5 / 1Maureen Batt, soprano; 2Leander Mendoza, 2Justin Simard, tenors; 2Robert O’Quinn, 2James Levesque, 3Jon-Paul Décosse, baritones; 4The Halifax Camerata Singers; 4Jeff Joudrey, conductor; 4Lynette Wahlstrom, 5Simon Docking, pianists / Leaf Music LM213

Here’s a disc with an interesting spin to it: two song cycles based on Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, the Romantic Highland tale of a clutch of men who love Ellen Douglas, including James FitzJames who is secretly King James V in disguise. It’s the kind of story that inspired the entire “romance novel” industry, one to which I have never been drawn. I’m not into make-believe B.S., but if you are you’ll adore the concept of this CD.

What I did find interesting, however, were the clutch of songs from Schubert’s cycle, most of which I had never ever heard before. The one I had heard is, of course, one of the composer’s “biggest hits,” the ubiquitous Ave Maria. Canadian soprano Maureen Batt, it turns out, has a very pretty voice with a quick but unobtrusive flicker-vibrato. Occasionally I detected a touch of nasality which I put down to the microphone placement. Her phrasing is clean and her legato seamless; the one drawback I found in her singing was a monotony of expression. Even in the very first song, which translates as “Rest, warrior! War is over,” Batt could be just as well singing about the baked chicken and coleslaw she wants to pick up at the local grocery as about a warrior wanting to find respite from his battles. But to be fair, her accompanying singers are no more expressive, not even the Halifax Camerata Singers.

Happily, I was very impressed by Fiona Ryan’s Lady of the Lake song cycle, here receiving its premiere recording. Ryan writes in a tonal but not simpering style. She moves the harmony around in such a way as to always suggest bitonality, occaisonally achieving it. The key shifts at times within a single bar, the first two beats in one tonality and the last two in another, yet it always makes perfect musical sense. She also knows how to write for a voice very well; the underlying harmonies may be always shifting, but the top line remains resolutely lyrical and fairly easy to follow. In this respect, her work seems strongly influenced by Benjamin Britten, which is not a bad thing.

In this cycle, which is sung alternately in English and French, I noticed that Batt has—as so many modern singers do—poor diction. I was unable to understand most of what she sang in her native tongue, only being able to discern a difference between vowels and consonants. Only the word “Creator,” in the second song, came through clearly. This is something she needs to work on. Yet I was continually fascinated by Ryan’s music, which cast its own spell on the listener.

Bass-baritone Jon-Paul Décosse, who splits this cycle with her, has much better diction. He also possesses a rich, full voice with a hint of spreading tone in it, sort of like a young Theo Adam, but unlike Batt he is a very dramatic, expressive interpreter. Batt does a surprisingly good job on the Song of a Warrior Woman, which begins, “So…you think us weak?” which is also one of Ryan’s more imaginative songs, calling for the pianist to play the strings with his or her fingers. The cycle bogged down a little in The Prisoner’s Lament, but that’s only to be expected…it is, after all, a lament. The real problem is that he laments for too long.

Things pick up, however, in the sprightly duet which begins “Harp of the north, farewell!” Here, again, Ryan has the pianist occasionally pluck the piano strings, ostensibly to simulate the sound of a harp. This is a duet between Batt and Décosse, and their voices complement each others’ very well here.

Overall, then, a mixed bag, but the Ryan songs are well worth a listen.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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