John Story
May 2, 2005

About a year ago, Arsis put a big advertising push behind a CD called Songs of Love that featured the music of Bernard Rands (b. 1934) and that of his wife, Augusta Read Thomas. I kind of blew hot and cold over that disc, but not this time. This is the real deal, a three-part work made up of what amounts to three independent song cycles, one for each of the vocalists, accompanied by either orchestra or, as here, a large chamber ensemble that is one of the most striking works I can recall hearing and one that only grows in my estimation each time I listen to it. The tenor work, Canti del sole, dates from 1984 (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music that year) and is placed first. Charting a progression from sunrise to sunset, the work sets 14 texts in five languages in a continuous musical stream that lasts about 27 minutes. The vocal line is largely declamatory, set against an expressive, mildly modernist instrumental web. Ideally, it requires a voice on the order of that of Ben Heppner, and Douglas Ahlstedt’s essentially lyric voice (his parts in the opera house include Fenton) is stretched to fill the music’s larger phrases. Still, he is a vast improvement over Paul Sperry, the original soloist, even as he would have sounded 20 years ago.

The second cycle, Canti lunatici, for soprano, was the first written—in 1980. Here the texts deal with the moon, beginning with the poem that closed the work devoted to the sun. Longer by about six minutes, the progression is from sunset to sunrise, but there is also a focus on lunacy as well as matters lunar. The music makes much more use of special effects, both in the voice and the instrumental writing, somewhat recalling that other famous cycle for woman’s voice and ensemble dealing with the effects of the moon, Pierrot Lunaire. This is music that could have been written for Lucy Shelton. Although she has done brilliant service in music ranging from Messiaen to Carter, this is easily the best I have ever hear her sound, fulfilling in turn each of the work’s many demands on her technique and expressivity.

The third panel, Canti dell’eclisse, for bass, was added in 1992. The texts here chart a more abstract progression—from the magnificence of heaven to the abyss of death, the central text being repeated from the end of the sun cycle and the beginning of the moon cycle. The singing, by bass Thomas Paul, could certainly be more expressive—one involuntarily wonders what singers ranging from Thomas Hampson to Sanford Sylvan would make of this music, but it is certainly able to convey the magnificence of this concluding part of the work.

At some point, perhaps someone will decide to record the orchestral version of the cycle, but the chamber scoring is a miracle of inventive use of limited resources. Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project do the composer proud, realizing the vast range of expression inherent in the music. The recording is excellent—sufficiently distant to capture the large dynamic range, but close enough to catch the details of the scoring. Informative notes are provided, as well as full texts and translations where needed. This is one of the major works of our time, and we are extremely fortunate in these days of serious cutbacks in the classical music industry that it has been served so well. Firmly recommended.

John Story, Fanfare Magazine