This is a most impressive coupling from Irish-American mezzo Aylish Kerrigan, who has previously won plaudits from Fanfare critics via her traversal of contemporary Irish music, I am Wind on Sea, again on the Metier label. (See the recent interview with Barnaby Rayfield in Fanfare 40:4, along with that disc’s review by Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold.)
Schoenberg’s spectacular Das Buch der hängnden Gärten (1908–09), 15 settings of poetry by Stefan George, is no easy listen. In her booklet essay, Aylish Kerrigan likens the cycle to Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Liederkreis in historic import, and with justification. Dearbhla Collins is a superb pianist, with her sensitivity to Schoenberg’s writing underlining the lyric impulse here; one imagines her Webern would have a similarly human warmth. Kerrigan is not afraid of “uncomfortable” sounds in painting the colors of this Expressionist work; the two musicians seem at their best when Schoenberg is at his most economical (the seventh song, “Angst und hoffen wechselnd mich beklemmen”). Kerrigan’s performance is impeccable in the way she moulds the melodic lines with such affection. There are songs of extreme beauty here: No. 10, “Das schöne beet betracht ich mir im harren” is one such, bleeding into the fragrant near-silence of “Als wir hinter dem beblümten tore.” Kerrigan caresses the musical line, reveling in the suspended nature of the harmonies and indeed of time itself. Although there is no through-directed trajectory here, it does seem as if the very essence of Schoenberg’s intimate statement is encapsulated in the final song, “Wir bevölkerten die abend-düstern Lauben.”
It is certainly worthwhile hearing the fine Naxos version of Das Buch by mezzo Jennifer Lane and pianist Christopher Oldfather (8.557520), especially given that disc’s fascinating couplings (the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, the chamber orchestra version of the “Lied der Waldtaube” from Gurrelieder, and a 1949 recording of Schoenberg himself speaking). In his review of that disc in Fanfare 28:5, James H. North mentions Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Jan DeGaetani as superb exponents of Das Buch, and I see no reason to argue.
The first chord of Seóirse Bodley’s A Girl offers warmth after the Expressionism of the Schoenberg. Born in Dublin in 1933, Bodley is professor emeritus at University College, Dublin. His output is large, including five symphonies plus two chamber symphonies. The poems for this cycle were specifically written for Bodley by the poet Brendan Kennelly and the premiere took place in 1978. But whatever the differences in harmonic language and expression, the link between the cycles is forged by the basic idea, in this case, a girl is pregnant and unmarried; the shame of this situation leads to her death by drowning. Traditional Irish song informs aspects of the writing (there is certainly a folkish aspect to the opening of “Sweetest Pleasures of the Heart”); the cycle as a whole takes in a huge range of emotions. The composer actually refers to this as a “dramatic cantata for solo voice and piano.” Hearing the protagonist in the first person underlines the realism of the emotions: the line “I’ll not be a wife” from the fourth song, “Lies,” thus becomes particularly poignant, as does anger of the line, “Innocence, you are my enemy” from the next song, “Evil.” Spoken lines are used sparingly and effectively: “What do the blackberries feel when I rip them off with my fingers?” in the song “Are women the only beings who feel?” makes its point poignantly, leading to the final line of the poem, bemoaning that “love is still a crime.”
It is worth noting that Bodley’s intensity can be just as powerful as Schoenberg’s, as “Darkness,” the 13th song, proves. The piano’s repeated gestures have something of the effect of Winterreise’s “Der Leiermann,” but with Schubert’s piano phrases deconstructed into a single gesture (something similar happens at the outset of the very final song, “I am going out … ”); the emptiness of the sparse textures of “Solitude” is palpable. Less is more here. The 50-second song “Strength” holds multiple resonances of meaning.
The recording, taken down at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, is supremely produced and engineered by Johannes Kammann. Full texts and translations are supplied. The content of this disc is obviously not for the faint-hearted, but full concentration is massively rewarded.