Melinda Bargreen | 16 SEP 2021
If you want it done right, do it yourself: That may well be the motto of soprano Molly Fillmore, who wrote the poetic texts for six of the songs featured on her remarkable new recording, Bold Beauty, with the pianist Elvia Puccinelli.
Here is one case where the title perfectly identifies the content. The songs featured here, by composer Juliana Hall, are bold indeed, and they also are beautiful. There’s no sense of the dainty “art song” air that hovers over so many presentations of lieder and song, or of the portentous gravity that all too often underlies many interpretations of song-cycle repertoire.
Composer Juliana Hall (born in 1958) has already written more than 60 song cycles and vocal chamber works, and she is an expert in that elusive art of expressing verbal meaning through just the right evocative music. No wonder her songs have been performed by a more than 600 singers and pianists, including a lengthy list of luminaries, garnering several prestigious commissions and awards. The libretti for the songs recorded here span the years 1989-2018.
Four of Hall’s song cycles are featured on this recording: two with texts drawn not from poetry, but from letters by eminent poets (Emily Dickinson, in “Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush,” and Edna St. Vincent Millay, in “Letters from Edna”). Full of personality and impact, these letters establish the individualism and the strong views of the writers, themes that are reflected in Hall’s colorful scores. A third cycle, “Theme in Yellow,” sets diverse poetry of three writers: Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, and Millay.
The newest of the four song cycles, “Cameos,” presents Hall’s settings of six of Fillmore’s own poems, heard here in their first recording. The poems have an intriguing context: they express the works and styles of six 20th-century American women painters — Sarah Albritton, Kay WalkingStick, Nellie Mae Rowe, Alice Dalton Brown, Agnes Pelton, and Corita Kent. All six of these artists were rule-breakers and pathfinders, as women working in a milieu mostly dominated by men. As Fillmore puts it: “They needed to be bold.”
In the liner notes, composer Hall observes that she based the songs not only on Fillmore’s very colorful texts, but also on the artworks of the six women artists who were the subject of the poems. The six songs are relatively brief (between two and four minutes) and sung in a mezzo-soprano version, transposed from the original (2017) soprano score. The opening song (“Sarah Albritton”) is a stunner, with declarative piano statements and emphatic chords, leading to Fillmore’s descriptive lyrics: they open with “Born in hell,” concluding “Hell is no match for you.”
Hall’s songs are not easy, yet they are eminently singable. Each song creates its own little world, in which the crystalline diction of the soloist brings the texts to the fore in their various moods: wry, ironic, pensive, exuberant, regretful, contemplative. Many of Hall’s songs feel spontaneous and episodic, with sudden whimsical shifts and turns: declarative passages that lead into wistful confessions.
The performances are just as commendably various as the repertoire. And Fillmore’s voice is difficult to categorize: variously described as a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, she has sung Wagnerian roles with major opera companies, where she has hoisted Valkyrie spears in the “Ring.” And yet the intimate songs recorded here take her all over the vocal universe: passages that venture down into contralto territory, high-flying lines that could belong to a coloratura soprano, the warmth and range of a lyric mezzo. Whatever Fillmore sings is easily produced, with a clarity that never makes the listener resort to the liner notes in a quest to decipher the words. The exquisite simplicity of “To Mother” (in the “Letters From Edna” cycle) is a particularly telling example of the storytelling with which Fillmore draws in the listener. Unforced, easy, and lyrical, her singing often sounds conversational – recreating the narrative style of the letters on which the songs are based.
Pianist Elvia Puccinelli is a remarkable and highly adaptable partner in each of the song cycles, underscoring the sudden mood changes with subtle shifts in attack, articulation, and expressivity. She is an assertive presence at the keyboard, but never an overpowering one. Her task frequently is the establishment of the song’s “sound world,” setting the mood of the music, and she does this expertly and deftly. She and Fillmore are faculty colleagues at the University of North Texas, a fact that has undoubtedly enriched the clear musical connection between these two artists. ■