American Record Guide

Schoenberg’s bizarre Buch der Hängenden Gärten will probably never end up on anybody’s list of favorite song cycles. The vocal line is extremely, sometimes frustratingly challenging; and there is no “pay-off” for the performer at the end. Stefan George’s poems are dense with concentrated poetic images that make them difficult to penetrate. It’s hard to identify with a protagonist one doesn’t understand. That said, I have heard some convincing performances of it on records, including Julie Kaufman’s account on Orfeo as well as Jan DeGaetani’s reading on Nonesuch. They make a better case for the work than the one presented here.

Aylish Kerrigan is a fine musician and scholar (she did the translation of the German texts). Her voice may be a little past its prime: there is a wobble and some strain in high-lying passages. Yet her sincerity is never in doubt and if she doesn’t match the best of previous recordings she certainly holds her own against most of the competition.

I wanted to like Seoirse Bodley’s song cycle A Girl more than I did. The narrative is about a young unmarried girl who finds herself pregnant and abandoned. Faced with the humiliation to which she’ll inevitably be subjected, she drowns herself. That’s a potentially powerful storyline, one that could supply many contrasting musical developments. Bodley has not done that. Instead the musical settings all sound drearily alike. The piano will strike a chord and the vocal line stays on one note for several lines of text. There is no melody, though there are hints of it in the piano writing. There is nothing for the singer to strive for vocally; everything is written in a very narrow range of expression. I found it dull and repetitive after several songs. Kerrigan does her best as does her fine pianist, but there doesn’t seem to be any there there, to misquote Gertrude Stein.

Metier’s presentation is classy: excellent sound, notes about both composers, and complete texts and translations (there is a German translation for the Bodley cycle).

—David Reynolds