Delan Sings Dickinson Songs


A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT / COPLAND: 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson. HEGGIE: Newer Every Day. GETTY: 4 Dickinson Songs. TILSON THOMAS: Poems of Emily Dickinson (selections) / Lisa Delan, sop; Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille; Lawrence Foster, cond / Pentatone 5186 634

Lisa Delan, a fine concert soprano who is also part of the Gordon Getty Foundation, presents here a multi-composer program of songs based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The surprises here, to me, were the songs of Jake Heggie and Michael Tilson Thomas; I hadn’t known that the latter was a song composer at all.

As usual, Delan’s voice has a very sweet tone, outstanding interpretation and good diction, although the slight flutter in her voice takes some getting used to. (I say this only to inform those who may not have heard her, not as a condemnation.) Conductor Lawrence Foster, whose tempi tend towards the slow side, is nonetheless fully in his element here, bringing out the crystalline clarity and simplicity of Aaron Copland’s orchestration, particularly in the opening song, “Nature, the gentle mother.” Some of the settings, such as “Going to heaven,” struck me as a bit glib, but that was Copland’s style at the time.

Jake Heggie, a composer I generally dislike, has written some very fine music for the Dickinson songs here (“Silence,” “I’m Nobody! Who are you?,” “Fame,” “That I Did Already Love” and “Goodnight”), and although Delan’s high range seems a bit stretched beyond its limits in “Fame,” she does an excellent job on them. The last song is particularly lovely in form and expression. I recall hearing a Dickinson song cycle from around 2000, recorded on a small label by Renée Fleming, that wasn’t nearly as good as this.

Yet as good as the Heggie and Copland songs are, Getty’s little cycle (it runs less than seven minutes) is even better, and his orchestration of these pieces even outdoes his piano accompaniments. Delan’s singing is just as good here as on her earlier, piano-accompanied recording (Pentatone 5186 459), but the orchestra gives the sound more depth and color, and Foster conducts them with great feeling.

Tilson Thomas’ cycle is considerably more modern, and spikier in harmony, than any of the preceding songs, yet the melodic lines sung by the soprano are tonal and somehow fit into the surrounding texture. This is especially evident in the fairly long orchestral introduction to “The Bible,” a song evidently inspired by the Age of Enlightenment as well as by the Universalist movement in New England at the time. Tilson Thomas’ setting, however, is marvelous, holding one’s interest from start to finish, and in toto this cycle is fascinating in a sort of echt-Hindemith style. A pity, then, that it was not recorded complete, particularly since there was obviously room on the CD to include further songs from it.

One thing that struck me was how well-programmed this music was, starting from the simple, lyrical music of Copland and working its way towards more complex settings. This gives the recital a feeling of progression that is seldom achieved. A very fine CD!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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