Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen (credit: Nick Zoulek)

CD Review: Relaxing and sensuous self-lullabies fill Ihnen’s “Sleep Songs”

Giorgio Koukl | 6 JAN 2021

With its nine tracks, Sleep Songs: Wordless Lullabies for the Sleeplesss, Vol. 1, is an all world premiere recording from mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen, featuring nine American composers including: Jay Derderian, Michelle McQuade Dewhirst, Lee Hartman, Julia Seeholzer, Arthur Breur, Griffin Candey, Tony Manfredonia, Jen Wang, and D. Edward Davis.

Sleep Songs: Wordless Lullabies for the Sleepless, Vol. 1 Megan Ihnen, me4zzo-soprano Release date: 1 Jan 2021 Odd Pop Records

Sleep Songs: Wordless Lullabies for the Sleepless, Vol. 1
Megan Ihnen, me4zzo-soprano
Release date: 1 Jan 2021
Odd Pop Records

Veil, by Jay Derderian, opens the CD with a scratching radio sound, disturbing and irritating. Slowly a strange and beautiful world appears. As a first encounter with the mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen, this is a very effective piece, maybe the best of the whole album. Her voice seems to emerge from the waves of the ocean, an immediate association with the Botticelli’s Venus comes in mind. This is a very appealing “amouse-buche,” if I’m permitted to use the high vocabulary of gastronomy, which indicates the direction of the whole project and creates an expectation in the listener.

The second track is a beautiful work, Deep rest by Michelle McQuade Dewhirst. Here finally I had access to a score, so following the composition, strictly voice alone and using four sounds only: ah, eh, m, and shh. I really appreciate the quality of the writing; hypnotic, with a quasi-Native Indian flair, a gem of timing and compositional skills. In this piece I have some concerns with the otherwise impeccable work of the producer and sound engineer Andrew Rodriguez, in that some of the sharps, intended to last the whole score, as there are no bars, are simply forgotten, some notes are not exactly the written ones, the “sigh” signs of the score are practically inaudible.

Across the whole world the role of “sound engineer” has quite different meanings. In certain countries this professional figure has to create the sound image, watch for eventual external disturbances and make the final cut and master. In other countries there is a different person, watching over the score and asking for corrections from the interpreter until satisfied. Sometimes this person can be quite a… well, let me not use strong words. Anyway, I am the first to recognize that he or she can squeeze out of the performer the maximum possible effort. Maybe in this case it would have been beneficial to have such a professional present on the recording stage.

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Lee Hartman, with i/xhale, immediately aroused the worst expectations in me; seeing a single page of score and far more instructions about how to perform it simply couldn’t go unnoticed. Nihil sub sole novum, as the Latins used to say, in that exactly one hundred years ago the Russian composer Alexandre Tcherepnin had done the same for the piano; furnishing notes to the musician and telling him; do as you please. Why not? Aleatorics were already at the time in the air, with the liberty of not being bound to a fixed score. But then the question arises: What should be the final result?

In the case of this rendering the result is extremely pleasant, maybe not exactly the sound you would wish to fell asleep, but technically a masterpiece. Only a small question: Who is exactly the person contributing the most? The composer, the singer or the real hero of this particular work, the sound engineer?

Without a score available to the listener, Julia Seeholzer’s It’s Okay, I’m Awake, Too, as track 4, unfortunately offers only few hints of about what is intended. The composer is pushing the mezzo-soprano into very uncommon heights, which is not without consequences, but this is not the only concern. As an overall concept of an autonomous work, it has to be confronted with the inevitable question: why this has been written? Unfortunately I have no answer for this.

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Arthur Breur, with his work Alua Alueia is covering the track 5. While I can express all my sympathy towards a composer using such a detailed plan of breath, at the same time I do not see this as a substantial contribute to the solo vocal literature, which is despite all the poverty of the means at disposal of the composer attached to a tradition of hundreds of “vocalise” examples in the literature for voice alone, signed by great names like Rachmaninoff, Martinů or Ravel.

In It’s All Coming Down, Darling by Griffin Candey, the composer is asking quite a lot from the mezzo-soprano. The chromatic passages without any help of an accompanying instrument leave the soloist alone in the wilderness of sharps and flats. At least some of the dynamics are requested here, as opposed to the precedent works. The result is, to say it gently, not so convincing. The exactness of intonation is not satisfactory and the rendering of the dynamic plan does not correspond to what is requested by the composer.

In general, while being able to modify her voice at pleasure (and this is the great achievement of Megan Ihnen), she has a tendency to finish every single note with a slight vibrato, which may be a choice, but after a while gets simply annoying.

And then, c’mon: repeating bars 5-8 twice without being this requested from the score is simply an editing error, which should never happen. (Well, throw the first stone to whom it never occurred.)

Following the score to Charlotte’s Lullaby by Tony Manfredonia, I noticed a specific request of portamento is a nice feature in the limited world of solo voice without words. They are present in the recording, but underlining more those rare elements, perhaps, would have been beneficial. There is nothing more difficult for a composer as to write music for a single instrument, but in case of a voice a whole array of expressivity is open and this has been effectively demonstrated by composer-vocalists like Cathy Berbarian and her Stripsody as well as others. But limiting the means to a very extreme can lead to monotony and boredom, which is not necessarily the result of a poor interpretation, but simply the lack of inputs.

In its simplicity the work of Jen Wang, The Days Are Long is at least a correct labor of what has been asked for: a lullaby. Combining the simple wordless melody with the hypnotic shh… shh… it is not pretending anything but nevertheless it works.

Edward Davis’ sleep patterns again delivers what it promises. It is a timeless pattern of melody cells to be repeated “until you are too tired to continue.”

This project can be a real contribution towards new and revolutionary way of conceiving vocalise music and we can only be interested to what else is coming in the next volumes as announced.

Let’s hope that some more care is brought to the recording process and that some more variety of voice capture, as it is shown in track one, can be conveyed to the master. Surely Megan Ihnen is capable to do so. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.