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MADRIGALI DELL'ESTATE - MUSIC FOR VOICE BY STEPHEN MCNEFF
Clare McCaldin

 

 

 
1. McNeff, Stephen [03:24]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - I - Implorazione

2. McNeff, Stephen [02:13]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - II - La sabbia del tempo

3. McNeff, Stephen [02:55]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - III - L'orma

4. McNeff, Stephen [03:44]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - IV - All'alba

5. McNeff, Stephen [02:41]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - V - A mezzodi

6. McNeff, Stephen [01:28]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - VI - In sul vespero

7. McNeff, Stephen [03:34]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - VII - Lincanto circeo

8. McNeff, Stephen [02:40]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - VIII - Il vento scrive

9. McNeff, Stephen [03:16]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - IX - Le lampade marine

10. McNeff, Stephen [03:34]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - X - Nella belletta

11. McNeff, Stephen [03:28]
Madrigali Dell'Estate - XI - Luva greca

12. McNeff, Stephen [07:01]
Farfalle di neve

13. McNeff, Stephen [06:57]
A voice of one delight - Part 1 - Livorno (1)

14. McNeff, Stephen [05:40]
A voice of one delight - Part 2 - Livorno (2)

15. McNeff, Stephen [02:46]
A voice of one delight - Part 3 - Lerici

16. McNeff, Stephen [07:50]
A voice of one delight - Part 4 - Via reggio

17. McNeff, Stephen [02:45]
Three Abruzzo folk songs - I - Lu Sant' Antonie

18. McNeff, Stephen [01:51]
Three Abruzzo folk songs - II - Tutte li fundanelle

19. McNeff, Stephen [03:27]
Three Abruzzo folk songs - III - La fija me

Artist(s):
Clare McCaldin, soprano


This new release of world premiere recordings is the result of composer Stephen McNeff and mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin’s shared interest in the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, born in Abruzzo, 150 years ago this year. A controversial figure, he was one of Italy’s bad boys; lover of actress Eleonora Duse, a collaborator with Debussy and librettist for Mascagni and sometime rival of Mussolini (who very probably tried to have him assassinated).
Clare initially asked Stephen for songs to premiere at a Royal Opera House recital and he set short extracts from d’Annunzio’s poems Undulna and Psiche Giacente, which he called collectively Farfalle di Neve – and this Italian poetry was something Stephen found both natural and strangely exotic to set to music.
The poems of Madrigali dell’Estate, which form a more substantial song-cycle, again commissioned for a recital at the Royal Opera House, trace the end of summer slowly giving way to autumn and are located geographically in a specific area near the mouth of the Motrone river in Abruzzo – a region that Stephen has come to know and love “which at first sight seemed like an untouristic Tuscany with its hill towns and mountains. Abruzzo is actually rather more rugged – some parts almost deserted”
Encouraged by the success of these settings, Stephen and Clare again worked together to extend the theme, this time in English, for a commission for the Presteigne Festival. A Voice of One Delight retells the events surrounding Shelley’s death,along with his friend Williams,in the bay of La Spezia on 8 July 1822. Louis Edouard Fournier’s highly romanticised painting The Funeral of Shelley (1889) provided the original inspiration and the presence of female onlookers in the background suggested that the story might be told from a woman’s point of view.
To round-off the Italian cycle Stephen returned to Abruzzo to write some new settings of traditional folk songs in dialect with the help of a friend and her grandmother, who he describes as embodying “both the humour and fortitude of the people in the hill towns”.
Clare McCaldin read Modern Languages at Clare College, Cambridge and initially had a career in advertising before turning to singing. Since then she has appeared as a soloist all over the UK and in Europe, on-stage and in concert. In addition to her reputation presenting established repertoire, Clare is recognised for her advocacy of new work.
Stephen McNeff studied composition at The Royal Academy of Music and initially established a reputation as a theatre composer. In 2004 the success of his opera for young people Clockwork, based on Philip Pullman’s book, and staged at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, widened his reputation, as did his appointment the following year as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Composer-in-the-House’.


 

 


The works on this CD are fruitful examples of the artistry of a performer provided inspiration for a composer – in this instance the mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin and composer Stephen McNeff. Their collaboration arose in part too through their shared interest in the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio: Madrigale dell’Estate, is an ambitious song cycle setting of eleven of his poems (drawn from a selection from the collection Alcyone), which McCaldin commissioned with the support of the RVW Trust. McNeff dedicated the work to her and, together with the pianist Lindy Tennent-Brown gave the premiere at the Royal Opera House, on 2 November 2009.

For McNeff the poems offered ‘a very strong series of images which are also highly allusive, hinting of some strange and distant encounter in the steamy last days of summer, combining pin-sharp observation of natural detail with fantastic symbolism and erotic undertones’. They also ‘provided an ideal starting place to write a work that showed off every facet of McCaldin’s voice ranging from the airy florid upper register of La sabbia del Tempo, to the dramatic chest register utterances in songs like Nella belletta.’

The sense of a journey characterises many of McNeff’s works, as is apparent here with the songs reflecting the passage of the ‘slow passing and death of summer’, through a division into a three-part narrative comprising poems 1-4, 5-8 and 9-11. ‘Implorazione’ (‘Supplication’) has the character of an introduction establishing the summery mood, before fears are voiced in ‘La sabbia del Tempo’ (‘The sands of Time’), and an uneasy encounter experienced in L’oma’ (‘The footprint’). With ‘All’Alba’ (‘At dawn’), the poems start another journey, that of the day, through ‘A mezzodi’ (‘At midday’) with its nymph and hot summer rain, to ‘In sul vespero’ (‘Towards evening’). ‘L’incanto Circeo’ (‘Circean Enchantment’) is a transitional voyage before ‘Il vento scrive’ portrays the wind writing on sand, and a descent into the luminous depths follows in ‘Le lampade marine’ (‘Sea-lanterns’). ‘Nella belletta’ (‘In the slime’) dwells on the stench of decay, which is offset by the final consolatory ‘L’uva greca’ (‘The Grecian grape’) and its evocation of a distant Greece.

McNeff provides many memorable music images in the work, from the wistful rocking to and fro idea on the piano almost at the very opening of the work, which recurs as a tender envoi in the final settings, to the impassioned, melismatic vocal line of ‘Il vento scrive’, and from ‘Nella belletta’ where the music almost reeks of decay and death like a strange danse macabre, to the quality of enchantment that suffuses the lyrical melodic outpouring of ‘L’incanto Circeo’.

Although Clare McCaldin had performed in other McNeff works, in particular Names of the Dead at the Battersea Arts Centre in 2004, Farfalle di Neve was the first of his works composed specifically with her voice in mind. It was written, he comments, partly ‘as a challenge to set something in Italian, as well as to show off Clare McCaldin’s voice. Clare – who speaks the language herself – commissioned it for a recital at the Royal Opera house where we were fortunate to have the resources of the ROH Italian coach and Italian speaking colleagues. It was also our first encounter with d’Annunzio and I was fascinated by the colour and atmosphere of his words.’ Scored for mezzo and string trio, it sets two d’Annunzio fragments from Undulna and Psiche Giacente respectively and was first performed on 30 April 2007 at the Royal Opera House by Clare McCaldin, with members of the Royal Opera House Orchestra – Jake Rea, violin, John Lovell, viola, and Naomi Williams, cello.

The McCaldin/McNeff partnership continued when there was the opportunity for the composer to write her a new piece when she was a resident artist at the 2010 Presteigne Festival. Rather than choose more Italian settings, they opted for English texts by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, but still with connections to Italy as the work dealt with the poet’s death by drowning off the coast of Livorno.

McNeff writes that ‘The death of Shelley had fascinated me for some time, not just because of the strange circumstances, but also because the odd collection of characters linked to it suggested a narrative which – although imagined – seemed very clear. Designed as a dramatic monologue where Jane Williams (Shelley’s inamorata in his last months) retells the story of the last hours, it presented rich possibilities in combining quasi recitative and spoken narration with lyrical reflection based on the late poems. Again, this allowed a range of colours and textures, but now with the addition of a small flexible ensemble of flute, viola and harp’. Also important in the conception was the painting by Louis Edouard Fournier The Funeral of Shelley.

The premiere of A Voice of One Delight took place on 29 August at St Michael’s Church, Discoed, when, apart from Clare McCaldin the performers were Kathryn Thomas (flute), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) and Suzanne Willison-Kawalec (harp). The work reveals McNeff’s natural theatrical flair, and is conceived as an extended scena, which combines vocal settings of Shelley’s poems with the spoken description (also performed by the singer) underscored by the ensemble in the manner of traditional melodrama.

During the work’s four sections McNeff responds fervently to the subtle ebb and flow of emotions and images within both Shelley’s ardent poems, and Jane Williams’s harrowing descriptions of the discovery of the washed-up bodies of Shelley and her husband, and their almost ritualistic cremation on the beach. Particularly poignant are the closing pages, where the instruments conjure the ‘glisten and quiver’ of the yellow flame of the funeral pyre and the mezzo’s intensely lyrical melody is a heart-breaking loss.

McNeff composed the ‘Three Abruzzo Folk Songs’ for Clare McCaldin in 2012, as a coda to the Italian settings on this disc. He comments that ‘Dialect is still spoken in the hill towns of d’Annunzio’s home region of Abruzzo. Away from the main piazza I once came across a family group sitting outdoors after dark on a summer evening – children asleep with grandmothers – gently singing. I wanted to capture this simplicity in the Folk Songs. They are not based on any tunes in particular but are my own reflections on the music of the region.’ These songs, as with all the works on this CD, demonstrate a composer fluently and confidently in command of his skills to express complex emotional states through the medium of the human voice.

Andrew Burn


“Here are brilliantly backlit cameos of sand and tide, shore and slimy estuary: a hedgehog at dawn, and a strange horse at evening. The voice recreates the sensuous, sensual energies of the words, moving between supple, heightened arioso and athletic lyricism.”

Hilary Finch, BBC Music Magazine

“I really enjoyed this disc, and it provides a great showcase for both singer and composer.”

Nick Boston, Classical Notes

“This is a daring and striking disc, wonderfully enterprising in its repertoire and superb in execution.”

Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill

   
   

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