A Certain Slant of Light (SACD review)

Songs on poems by Emily Dickinson. Lisa Delan, soprano; Lawrence Foster, Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille. Pentatone PTC 5186 634.

"I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!

How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog - 
To tell one's name - the livelong June - 
To an admiring Bog!"

American poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886) was among the country's most unusual artists in that she was almost unknown as a poet in her lifetime. She was withdrawn and reclusive, never married, and allowed the publication of only a handful of her poems while she was alive. After her death, her relatives found a veritable treasure trove of her poems and published many of them. Then, she became quite famous, yet, remarkably, her complete and largely unedited works would not see publication until 1955.

Although Ms. Dickinson's poems are most often brief and simple, they contain a wealth of insight. Conciseness is probably the single most important element in her poems, her succinctness in expressing big ideas in a small space. She had the unique ability to condense her observations on Nature, spirituality, consciousness, death, solitude, and essential human emotions like fear, longing, and ambition into just a few lines.

It was, perhaps, the breadth of Ms. Dickinson's insights that led a number of composers to set at least some of her poems to music. On the present album we find the work of four such composers, Copland, Heggie, Getty, and Tilson Thomas, effectively sung by soprano Lisa Delan, accompanied by conductor Lawrence Foster and the Marseille Philharmonic Orchestra.

Here's a rundown of the album's contents:

Aaron Copland:
  1. Nature, the gentlest mother
  2. There came a wind like a bugle
  3. The world feels dusty
  4. Heart, we will forget him
  5. Dear March, come in!
  6. Sleep is supposed to be
  7. Going to Heaven!
  8. The Chariot

Jake Heggie:
  9. Silence
10. I'm Nobody! Who are you?
11. Fame
12. That I did always love
13. Goodnight

Gordon Getty:
14. Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers
15. A Bird Came Down the Walk
16. There's a Certain Slant of Light
17. Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Michael Tilson Thomas:
18. Down Time's Quaint Stream
19. The Bible
20. Fame
21. The Earth Has Many Keys
22. Take All Away From Me

The earliest of the musical compositions, Aaron Copland's, date from 1948-50; the others from 2001 (Tilson Thomas) to 2014 (Jake Heggie), with Gordon Getty's pieces deriving from 2004.

Lisa Delan
Soprano Lisa Delan provides a lovely presentation of the poems, her voice radiant and expressive. Maestro Foster's accompaniment with the Marseille Orchestra is sweet and sympathetic. One cannot doubt that the album's selections get a treatment the composers would approve.

That said, I don't know that I appreciated the music as much as I might. Having practically grown up with the poetry of Ms. Dickinson (well, since my teens, at least, in the 1950's), I not sure her poems need the added distinction of music. Would the words of Shakespeare be any better sung? Besides, poetry needs time for reflection, often line by line, maybe word by word, and by turning Ms. Dickinson's poems into songs, we don't get that meditative opportunity (unless you're going to hit the pause button every few seconds).

But I quibble. Of the song-poems presented, I preferred the ones set to music by Aaron Copland. They seemed the most musical and most evocative to me, perhaps because Copland was so used to staging ballet. By contrast, Jake Heggie's arrangements seem more energetic, with more pronounced, more dramatic accompaniments. Gordon Getty's take on some of the poems appears lighter than the others, but certainly appropriate--maybe the most appropriate of all considering the simplicity of the poems. However, he offers up the title poem, "There's a Certain Slant of Light," with a gravity, a seriousness, it deserves. The program ends with five poems by conductor-composer Michael Tilson Thomas, who affords them the most creative, most theatrical frameworks, with a hint of Leonard Bernstein thrown in.

Certainly, there is variety here, with everyone doing his and her part in the proceedings with evident care. I just wish, as I said, I could have enjoyed the music as much as I admired it.

Producers Job Maarse and Lisa Delan and engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen and Karel Bruggeman recorded the music at Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille, France in June and July 2017. They made the album in hybrid SACD for multichannel and two-channel playback from an SACD player and two-channel playback from any ordinary CD player. As usual, I listened in two-channel SACD.

Ms. Delan's voice sounds clear, if a tad strident in the highs, and well integrated with the orchestra--out in front but not excessively so, just realistically placed. The orchestral accompaniment is not too widely spaced behind her but again realistically, and it provides a good stage depth. The overall sonic picture is smooth and gentle, nicely complementing the music.

JJP

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


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa