Composer Samuel Adler (source:

Song cycles of Samuel Adler shine brightly in album re-release

Samuel Adler: Unholy Sonnets and Other Song Cycles
Joseph Evans, tenor; Rebecca Karpoff, soprano; Freda Herseth; Cary Lewis, piano; The Atlanta Winds (Amy Porter, flute; Yvonne Powers, oboe; Ted Gurch, clarinet; Elizabeth Burkhardt, bassoon; Richard Deane, horn).
Samuel ADLER: Unholy Sonnets
Samuel ADLER: Four Songs About Nature
Samuel ADLER: Three Songs About Time
Samuel ADLER: Three Songs About Love
Samuel ADLER: Two Songs From The Portuguese
Samuel ADLER: Two Traditional Japanese Songs
Samuel ADLER: Wish For A Young Wife
Samuel ADLER: In Thine Own Image
Samuel ADLER: Songs With Winds
Navona NV6578
Format: Digital
Release Date: November 10, 2023
Duration: 60:00

Giorgio Koukl | 13 NOV 2023

“My true-love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one to the other given…”
~Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

It is the subtle poetry art from many different centuries and countries that forms the central theme of this entire album. Gorgeously set in music by Samuel Adler and marvelously sung and played, it forms a real gem of what Richard Wagner would have called “Gesamtkunstwerk.”

Born in 1928 in Mannheim, Germany, Samuel Adler is one of the last composers coming out of the glorious tradition of great names like Copland, Hindemith, and Piston. This well-rooted tradition is palpable in the whole of his rather copious compositional output of more than 400 works, including operas, symphonies, and many chamber pieces. Yet it is the vocal scores that capture mostly his spirit and ability to create his own sound landscape with minimal technical means, a rare gift today.

Navona NV6578 album art

Navona NV6578 album art

We are presented with some of his many song cycles totaling 31 tracks in this Navona Records digital re-release, originally issued in 1998 on the now-defunct Gasparo label. (GSCD-322).

Three singers are involved: tenor Joseph Evans, soprano Rebecca Karpoff, and soprano Freda Herseth present eight song cycles and one standalone song called “In thine own image” written by Fania Kruger. Pianist Cary Lewis accompanies them, except for the last cycle, “Songs with Winds” by the Atlanta Winds.

What can be said right from the beginning is that this installment is a pure joy to listen to. The music is intriguing, extremely variegated and harmonically complex yet dramatically apt to describe the chosen poetry. The interpreters are all excellent and perfectly well chosen for the role they need to represent. The only sore point is the rather dry sonics.

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But let us examine the different songs. The starting point gives the name to the whole project: Unholy Sonnets, a title that originates from the author of the first five songs John Donne. Tenor Joseph Evans has a perfect voice for this song style, closer to classical German lied than to operatic needs. He has a rare gift of expressing with his voice the content of the poetry, again a thing not so common among singers.

His piano partner and the matador of the whole disc is pianist Cary Lewis, a dream partner for any singer, always attentive to the breathing needs of the voice and with the right choice of dynamics to underline the dramaturgy of the sung line but never to disturb it. Only in a few moments is his piano captured a hint too low for being a real partner of the singer, but this is a practice quite common coming from the past and now luckily less frequent.

It has to be said that the composer is not being very kind to his soloists, never helping them with doubling their part with the piano, but for most songs, instead playing “against” the vocal line, thus asking much in terms of intonation. Most of the time, this is not a problem for all three soloists.

In some songs like “Broken Heart,” the piano part is hellishly difficult and yet played with ease by Mr. Lewis.

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In the second cycle, Four Songs about Nature, we can enjoy the soprano Rebecca Karpoff and her ease in reaching the extremely high notes asked, particularly in the first and the last song, “The Wind” and “And It was a Stormy Weather.” Here, the interplay between the singer and the pianist reaches a real peak of difficulty.

Tracks 10 to 12 contain the Three Songs About Time, which is the moment for soprano Freda Herseth. She is a hint darker in her natural timbric disposition than Ms. Karpoff and especially impressive in the lower register. The last song, “Time, you old gypsy man,” with words by the English Victorian poet Ralph Hodgson is probably the most beautiful in terms of musical rendering.

Another short song cycle follows, Three Songs About Love, with poetry from the English writers Edmund Waller, Sir Philip Sidney, and Oliver Goldsmith. At this point, we must mention Mr. Adler’s enormously eclectic choice of texts. Being a voracious reader of poetry, he certainly has the capacity to choose only what truly speaks to him; this can be naturally felt throughout the whole disc.

Two short cycles of folk music, one from Portugal and one Japanese, show us the mastery of Mr. Adler in adapting his means to the needs of the text. Ms. Herseth sang both; the second was even in the original language. They are short but impressive.

The disc finishes with five short Songs with Winds, where Ms. Karpoff is joined by the quintet Atlanta Winds: Amy Porter, flute; Yvonne Powers, oboe; Ted Gurch, clarinet; Elizabeth Burkhardt, bassoon; Richard Deane, horn.

This group is simply fabulous. As the exhaustive text informs us, they no longer exist in this formation, a real pity.

It is a seldom enough occasion that a musical production can be recommended without any hesitation.


Giorgio Koukl (photo: Chiara Solari)

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 a second volume of the complete solo piano music of Polish composer Alfons Szczerbinski.
(photo: Chiara Solari)