Kirsten Ashley Wiest is Luminous!

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HOLMES: Fragments. ERBER: Phoenix. VAN ZANDT: Apples and Time Crack in October. LIGETI: Mysteries of the Macabre / Kirsten Ashley Wiest, sop; Siu Hei Lee, pno / Centaur CRC 3823

Kirsten Ashley Wiest, who holds a DMA in Contemporary Music Performance in Voice from UC San Diego and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, is here challenging the more world-famous sopranos Barbara Hannigan and Sarah Maria Sun in the kind of music that is their forte, the offbeat and technically difficult vocal music of modern composers. Indeed, her challenge to Hannigan is represented by her singing one of the Canadian soprano’s core pieces, György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, here presented in the piano-accompanied version.

The other works on here are by composers formerly unrepresented on CDs: Jeffrey Holmes, who writes what he calls “post-spectral, teleological music incorporating elements of mysticism and lyrical expression,” British-born James Erber, and Jack Van Zandt who writes what he describes as “sonic sculptures, soundscapes, new media works and ambient environments for public places.” So off we go to the Bizarro world!

Kirsten Ashley Wiest, photo from the artist’s website

Fragments, a work in four movements, consists of mostly microtonal vocalise against a non-microtonal piano backdrop. Wiest’s voice immediately strikes the ear as a light, pretty and high instrument. Like legendary soprano Emma Kirkby, it has an almost pre-pubescent sound, clear and virginal, and is tonally even in production from top to bottom. Despite its lightness, I can well imagine that her voice has excellent projection because the timbre is so tightly focused and bright. Her pitch is flawless and she can caress the line, when asked for, with a seamless legato. Indeed, there were moments in this music where I found it difficult to hear where she took a breath. She has a light but well-controlled flicker-vibrato of the type rarely heard nowadays, but which was once a feature of the very best singers of the past. In addition to Hannigan and Sun, I might also toss in the name of Tony Arnold as another competitor in the modern soprano repertoire, but Wiest’s voice has an even firmer control than Arnold’s. Think of her as being like Bethany Beardslee, but with a much prettier tone. Only in the mid-range, at times, did I feel that the voice had less than perfect breath support, which is extremely odd since this is the one place where most sopranos have their firmest tone.

Despite the division of this work into four parts, each with a different title, as a listener I felt as if it was a continuous piece of music. The tempi, general pitch placement, musical motifs being used and their treatment within each piece are similar to one another, making it sound like a continuous 13-minute work.

Erber’s Phoenix is similarly atonal but not microtonal; on the contrary, the vocal line consists of serrated figures that leap up and down in the singer’s range, having echoes of Schoenberg about them. Here, too, she sings lyrics taken from the poems of 16th-century philosopher Giordano Bruno, “Unico augel del sol” and “Ben ch’a tanti martir.” Both are concerned with love; in the first, the lover compares himself to the mythical Phoenix while in the latter Bruno speaks of the pangs of love which have caused him both unimaginable torments as well as transcendental vision. If anything, the second song is even more angular than the first; in both, Wiest manages their difficulties with apparent ease. She ends the second song with humming à la Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.

Van Zandt’s Apples and Time Crack in October also uses lyrics set to poems by Jill Freeman, but alas Wiest’s diction was not clear enough for me to make out any of the words—her only defect as a singer. She has yet to learn, as the old teachers explained, how to “put the words on the lips and let the breath run them out.” Here we leave the realm of abstract, angular music for somewhat more lyrical but no less atonal lines for the soprano. I found it to be an exceptionally rich work, with a surprisingly Romantic-sounding piano accompaniment in the fourth song, “Helen’s Invocation,” where the vocal line rises to an exultant high note. These sample pages from the first song will give you an indication of van Zandt’s wonderfully complex writing style:

Apples p. 1

Apples p. 2

Apples p. 3

As for Wiest’s performance of Mysteries of the Macabre, it is superbly vocalized and rhythmically perfect but just misses the truly wacky twists that Hannigan brings to it. Yet she is clearly enjoying it, as is pianist (and occasional commentator) Siu Hei Lee, whose playing throughout this recital is simply superb. Unless you’ve heard the Hannigan version, however, I think you’ll have no problem enjoying this performance since it is quite lively and energetic.

No question about it: this is a terrific debut disc for Wiest, showing off her many outstanding qualities. Now if only she could work on her diction in the high range, she’s be perfect!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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