Mark Abel: Terrain of the Heart (CD review)

Song cycles of Mark Abel. Jamie Chamberlin and Ariel Pisturino, sopranos; Victoria Kirsch, piano. Delos DE 3438.

Wikipedia defines the "art song" as "a vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment, and usually in the classical tradition. By extension, the term 'art song' is used to refer to the genre of such songs. An art song is most often a musical setting of an independent poem or text, 'intended for the concert repertory' as part of a recital or other relatively formal social occasion."

Shortly before reviewing this disc I was talking to American composer Mark Abel (b. 1948) via e-mail, and he was saying how small the audience was for art songs these days. It got me to thinking, yes, but hasn't it always been so? I mean, the audience for classical music in general is pretty small to begin with and always has been; so the market for a niche category like the art song is inevitably smaller still. I'm sure Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, and the rest saw it the same way in their era. Admittedly, too, art songs, lieder, and the like don't do much for me personally, either, but, then, I'm not too keen on singing in general. I don't even care for much opera, so I'm no one to talk.

Anyway, Abel, who described the songs of a previous album, The Dream Gallery, as "a post-modern synthesis of classical and rock" takes his compositional creativity a step further in Terrain of the Heart with what a booklet note calls his "most extensive foray into the intimate world of the art song...a fresh look at the idiom while working within the framework through which art song is traditionally presented--as a recital vehicle for solo voice and piano." Fair enough. And, surprisingly for me, as with The Dream Gallery, I enjoyed his new album, which draws in part upon the composer's roots in pop, rock, and jazz as well as classical music.

The album contains three song cycles, the first called "The Dark-Eyed Chameleon" sung by soprano Jamie Chamberlin, accompanied by Victoria Kirsch on piano. This set contains five songs Abel wrote, each between three and eight minutes. The songs, Abel explains, are his way of sharing some of his inner self, a "release valve" serving as a way for him to deal with the pain of an especially painful breakup. The songs are a poignant reminder of life's turmoil and trauma, the kinds of things we have all experienced.

Like so much of Abel's work, we get a good deal of tortured introspection in "The Dark-Eyed Chameleon," the songs full of pathos and distress. The piano accompaniment nicely captures the mood of each piece, and Ms. Chamberlin conveys a sweet sense of anguish throughout. Some of these songs are downright heart-wrenching, so expect a sort of long day's journey into night here. Fortunately, they are quite fetching, too, "Your Girl" a particularly touching work, if perhaps a tad too sentimental for all listeners.

The second set, called "Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke," offers settings of poems by the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist of the early twentieth century. Soprano Ariel Pisturino sings the songs, again accompanied by Ms. Kirsch on piano. The poems themselves are rather puzzling at times and perplexing, so it's best just to go with Abel's sensitive musical explorations and not worry overmuch about the meaning and messages of the lyrics. Unless, of course, you're really into poetry and enjoy multiple, nuanced interpretations. The atmosphere of these songs is darker, more dour, and, depending on one's own mood at the time, more depressing than those of the first set. Ms. Pistorino's singing encapsulates the evocative soul of each piece, and Abel's piano arrangements for them are equally severe; yet the glumness also has an oddly appealing optimism about it, so it's not all doom and gloom.

The final set is "Rainbow Songs," four songs by Mr. Abel performed by Ms. Chamberlin, with Ms. Kirsch again accompanying. These are probably the most positive, colorful tunes in the collection, so it's nice to go out with them. These are also doubtless the most colorful and rhythmic songs on the program, yet one can see how they might not communicate to a mass audience. They're a bit too serious for that, a bit too intellectual, their melodies serving the words rather than trying consciously to reach top-ten trends.

I have to admit that, as I said earlier, I am not a big fan of singing (pop, jazz, art, opera, whatever) to being with, nor do I care for a lot of modern classical music in general. It seems to me that modern classical composers try too insistently not to write anything approaching pleasing harmonies or easily remembered melodies for fear of crossing over into the realm of popular music. Still, there is much to enjoy and contemplate in Abel's consciously "artsy" songs, with their thoughtful and well-considered lyrics and music. They're worth a listen.

The booklet notes contain not only information about each song but complete lyrics as well. If you're into understanding fully some of these poems, the words are helpful, even though the voices ring out in strong, precise English in any case.

Mark Abel and Carol Rosenberger produced the album and Matthew Snyder of Matthew Snyder Recordings in Burbank, California recorded it in June and September of 2013. The voice seems a bit close relative to the piano, but both voice and piano are clear and clean, with no annoying edge or brightness. It's quite a natural-sounding recording, actually, with a modest degree of reverberant room ambience to make everything seem lifelike.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa