Paul Moravec: Vita Brevis – Characteristics – Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy
Amy Burton (soprano), Trio Solisti, Simon Mulligan (piano), La Fenice, Cecilia Brauer (glass harmonica)
Recorded at: Performing Arts Center, SUNY-Purchase, NY, (October 2007, May 2008 & November 2009) – 56'19
Naxos 8.559698 – Booklet in English
American composer Paul Moravec, awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, writes subtly personal, always beautiful music. There is no conscious attempt here at modernism for its own sake, though Moravec knows the many tricks of the avant-garde well and occasionally pulls them out of his otherwise mostly conservative bag. Fans of Barber and Rorem will especially enjoy this disc, which presents three medium-scale works in fine performances.
Vita Brevis, a five-part song cycle, progresses in parallel from infancy to death and darkness to light. Moravec's writing for the voice is excellent throughout, and he shows a great sensitivity to the texts in all movements. Already in this work, his slow music comes across as more successful than fast movements. The opening "Lullaby" underpins an operatic vocal melody with ominous chromaticisms in cello and piano, while the Frye setting ("In Remembrance") closes the cycle with a touching serenity. Soprano Amy Burton sings with a rich, flexible tone and excellent diction. Her voice is lovely throughout, although the consistently high tessitura of the central setting ("Mezzo Cammin") sounds less than ideal for her voice. The Trio Solisti play with sensitivity, producing a warmly blended sound suitable to Moravec's orchestration, an expansion of an earlier version of the piece for voice and piano that keeps the keyboard at its core.
Following in the tradition of Bernstein's Four Anniversaries and George Perle's Celebratory Inventions, Moravec's Characteristics limn character sketches of musical friends in virtuosic piano miniatures. There are many delights in the suite, including a stasis in "Serene" reminiscent in gesture and harmony of Britten. Some movements fall flat, such as "Humorous," where the composer doesn't have enough fun with the bluesy rhythms and harmony. Simon Mulligan plays excellently, with a precise rhythmic sense that makes the most out of the quick movements. The piano is recorded quite closely, and "Serene" and the closing "Contemplative" movements don't achieve quite the sense of distance and mystery that they would in a live performance.
The disc closes with Moravec's "personal view of Benjamin Franklin," Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy. A cantata set to texts compiled from Franklin's own writing, the structure is cleverly conceived and presents, in mostly pithy fragments, a complex picture of the storied American. Everything smartly unfolds from the sounds of the glass harmonic (which Franklin invented and which Moravec seems to present as an "Ur-Instrument"), whose timbre is gradually picked up by the other members of the ensemble before they diverge into their own sonic worlds. The prosody of the text setting throughout the work seems less natural than in Vita Brevis, but baritone Randall Scarlata's singing is wonderful, his voice's warmth never falling prey to the artificiality of the balance between voice and ensemble. Moravec relies too often on text repetition to build drama, but this is a small complaint, and the overall arch shape of the 18-minute work, especially the return of the imaginative opening as a closing frame, keeps one engaged. The ensemble La Fenice (oboe and piano quartet) sounds wonderful, perhaps a little too glossy and "pretty" for some moments in the score.
The three works all have a similar dramatic arc, especially in Moravec's consistent nostalgic ending. Even in the fast movements, there is never a sense of overwhelming exuberance, and throughout everything is beautiful, never edgy, which could leave one wishing for more overall contrast or could satisfy completely, depending on the listener's mood. Moravec's booklet essay is well-written and gives useful information about the pieces without being overly pedantic. Texts for the vocal works (except the Agee and Frye settings in Vita Brevis) are available on Naxos' website.
Marcus Karl Maroney