Woman Spirit – Songs by LIBBY LARSEN: Sonnets from the Portuguese; My Antonia; Margaret Songs; Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII – Ann Tedards, soprano/ Marva Duerksen, piano – MSR 1349, 63:43 [Distr. by Albany] **1/2:
Since there are so few collections like this of Larsen’s songs, this recording will fill a gap for many. There is no way this recording of Sonnets from the Portuguese is going to supplant Arlene Auger’s effort on Koch (“The Art of Arleen Augér”); it was the soprano who worked closely with the composer in the selection from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 44 sonnets, and that reading must be considered definitive. So it has to be for other reasons that one would turn to this disc.
My Antonia is a cycle of seven songs created in 2000 from Willa Cather’s novel (1918). The novel, considered by many a masterpiece, is in an introduction and five books. The summary in Wikipedia says it nicely: “The book’s narrator, Jim Burden, arrives in the fictional town of Black Hawk, Nebraska, on the same train as the Shimerdas, when he goes to live with his grandparents after his parents have died. Jim develops strong feelings for Ántonia, something between a crush and a filial bond, and the reader views Ántonia’s life, including its attendant struggles and triumphs, through that lens.” Larsen takes her cues primarily from the Introduction, and first two books, forming a sort of dramatic episode among the seven songs. Its descriptive power is very affecting, and a good soprano can sell this music with a lot of forcefulness.
Just as the first song in My Antonia focuses on a train ride, so does the opening salvo of Margaret Songs, also culled from Willa Cather, this time from a short story, “Eric Hermannson’s Soul”, which also formed the basis for an opera by Larsen. Some of the music for these songs actually comes from the opera. Her music is very tuneful and descriptive, ingratiating to the voice and easily understood, evidence of careful word-setting.
2001 brought Larsen turning her attention to history, this time to the reign of Henry VIII and his wives, specifically their last words. It is an interesting concept, and features music that is more angular, dramatic, and forceful than the other music on this disc. Larsen is truly a master at discerning the emotional and dramatic possibilities inherent in a specific text setting, and she does not disappoint here.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the performances. Soprano Ann Tedards seems to strain a lot, has some problems in her pitch centering, and her wobbly vibrato feels out of control and often stretches the tonal quality of her voice to the point of listener discomfort. She obviously has good dramatic instincts and makes excellent interpretative choices, with a real feeling for the composer’s work. But there is too much that sounds insecure in this singing to make this recommendable to anyone except for those diehard fans of the composer. Larsen’s songs deserve a wide hearing. I would suggest as a starting point the Albany album (also available on Amazon as MP3s) Grand Larsen-y as a better place to start, and that collection also has the Margaret Songs. The other two cycles are excellent too, and it appears that this is the only place you can find them for now.
— Steven Ritter
An excellent survey of a favorite Chopin genre…