Doors: Three Poems by W.S. Merwin for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano; Questions of Travel: for clarinet, cello and piano; To Paradise for Onions: for clarinet and piano; A Child’s Garden: for soprano, clarinet and piano; Asian Figures: for clarinet and piano based on texts by W.S. Merwin; Four Poems of Langston Hughes duets for two sopranos and piano
Claron McFadden: sop; Roberta Alexander: sop; Nancy Braithwaite: cl; Michael Stirling: vc; Vaughan Schlepp: pf
Are there valid connections between music and words? Is the technical language of poetry that different from the technical language of music? Edith Hemenway answers both questions quite exquisitely in her work, performed here by Nancy Braithwaite in various configurations from duets with sopranos, or piano; or in trio settings and quartet settings. And as this gorgeous music unfolds we are reminded that music as expressed by Edith Hemenway has a language all its own, just as Beethoven, Bach and the rest have in music lived and worked a temporal and spiritual beings; exactly as Shakespeare and Dante – or in this case – as have W.S. Merwin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elizabeth Bishop and Langston Hughes. And Ms Hemenway brings it all together on the page, but Miss Braithwaite and the rest deliver a performance that makes the black dots literally leap off the very page on which it was written.
To be correct, I suppose, this is a chamber work necessarily played in ensemble, though with a few solo flights. But Miss Braithwaite “hides in plain sight” more out of an abundance of modesty. For she is the ring-leader of this ensemble; doing all of the heavy-lifting to bring this music to fruition. Indeed, as we now know, Edith Hemenway has written most – if not all of this work – for Miss Braithwaite’s clarinet and, of course, other instruments, not the least being the human voice; but principally for Miss Braithwaite whom she trusted would make it all come alive. The clarinetist has returned the favour exponentially, for in Miss Braithwaite, in fact, is music qua music to be appreciated at its most uncompromising. Moreover, the words of the poets – either brilliantly sung by the sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander – or played as musical exegesis of the poets’ works – gain, to my mind, greater significance, Ms Hemenway’s themes (that is) being applied to “literature”.
Miss Braithwaite has mastered the diabolically difficult clarinet in a manner that few can claim to have. Hers is a genius for unlocking the mystique of both the arts of the word and music to make us feel the glinting lights, mysterious depths, expectations, frustrations, hopes, doubts and joys of the human experience. In sheer colour and variety, in the depth of characterisation and the exceptional range and refinement of her musicianship she imparts a power and stature to this music (and poetry). She is of course, aided and abetted by the breathtaking soprano of Miss McFadden on “Doors” and “A Child’s Garden” both of which are based on works by the poet W.S. Merwin and R.L. Stevenson respectively.
On “Questions of Travel” Ms Hemenway was inspired to write for trio by the poetry of the great Elizabeth Bishop. These seven vignettes bloom in variety and stylishness which is matched perfectly in performance by Miss Braithwaite, cellist Michael Stirling and pianist Vaughan Schlepp. Both cellist and pianist are, here, fully attuned to Miss Braithwaite’s artistry and vision of the works. “Asian Figures” is based on Mr Merwin’s oriental poems and is both seductively and persuasively performed. Miss Alexander, the other brilliant soprano, joins in on duets that bring Langston Hughes’ lyric work to life in the work entitled “Four Poems of Langston Hughes”. The disc gets its name from work, and a poem, by Ford Madox Ford who was with a group of pioneers at the turn of the century, responsible for Imagisme, as one of the group’s founders, Ezra Pound, once called it.
This is music of ravishing beauty, played with aristocratic grace and masterful psychological ambiguity. It is also music performed with insolently effortless and debonair virtuosity, and with appropriate deference evoking the language of the requisite poetry as few could even hope to try.
Released – 2019
Label – Et’cetera (KTC 1632)
Runtime – 1:11:55