DANIELPOUR:  Elegies (1997) for Mezzo-soprano, Baritone and Orchestra.  Sonnets to Orpheus (1991) for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble.
Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Hampson, baritone (Elegies); Ying Huang, soprano (Orpheus); London Philharmonic Orchestra and Percussion Ensemble/Roger Nierenberg, cond.
SONY CLASSICAL SK 60850 (F) (DDD) TT:  65:27

Richard Danielpour (b. January 28, 1956) has been a "hot" composer for at least a decade—plentifully commissioned, widely performed, published by G. Schirmer/amp, and severally recorded (although Schwann/Opus 12 lists only three CDs in print). His musical subjects are wide-ranging, including vocal music inspired by Helen Schucman's A Course in Miracles. Danielpour is a composer who reads widely, and finds inspiration in it—witness the two song cycles on this disc, opulently packaged by Sony with texts for all 11 songs. And that is an essential crutch, because Danielpour's weakness as a composer, it seems to me, apart from his eclecticism, is writing vocal music that can be sung without our needing printed texts to understand the words.

We find, in Elegies, for example, verse by Kim Vaeth that features such tongue-twisters as "Helmet-crossed Death, / your unabashed clamor / summons among / shards of lilac and blood" (the larger problem is not her oxymoronic "shards of blood"). Or, "Beloved whorl, / pierced with love, I am all at once / what you are, viridian lashed / eye and flair." Or, "Come back - Come back / vessel of helixed light, / fragrant dusk of my father." I'm not sure even Richard Hundley could set that phrase intelligibly, much less Virgil Thomson, whose terminal book, Music with Words: A Composer's View ( 1989), Danielpour needs to read rather than Schuctman, Vaeth, Rainer Maria Rilke (his recurringly favorite source-poet), or Joseph Campbell.

He is a vivid orchestrator, even when the cliche comes easily to him—funereal bells, drum and tam-tam in the first of five Elegies, interpretively poeticized by Vaeth from letters that Frederica von Stade's soldier-father wrote to her mother during service in WW2. Tragically, he was killed by a land mine just six weeks before his daughter's birth on June 10, 1945, and for a period of years the letters went missing. But eventually they were found, handed over to Vaeth, and thereafter set to music by Danielpour. The loss must have been awful for Miss Von Stade's pregnant mother, and the singer's lifelong efforts to make contact with the spirit of a father she never knew are poignant. But the letters needed an expressively straightfoward "channeler," whose texts could be sung in a way comprehensible without Cliff Notes.

Lt. Charles von Stade is not the only ghost, though, who inhabits Elegies: the music falls somewhere between Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and Britten's War Requiem, with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and Shostakovich's Mussorgsky settings also present. Danielpour's repeated use of an unexpected accidental is not so much a trademark as a mannerism, although I think he scores glitzily in the best sense. His cycle lacks a musical trajectory, however, even with evergreen Miss von Stade singing as herself, and the protean Thomas Hampson as her father (did he really write to his wife "Peace, ride the air I breathe,/ uncage, unshroud my sheathed / cloven heart shed shadow"?).

Sony's program book doesn't say so, but Sonnets to Orpheus (six, in Stephen Mitchell's translations) is the first of two Rilke cycles by Danielpour—this one from 1991, created for Dawn Upshaw, who introduced it with a chamber ensemble of 11 players in November 1992. Again the texts seem meant for reading rather than musical setting, and lyric sopranoYing Huang has the same pronunciation problems as her discmates. Compositionally, an uncredited borrowing of the solo horn from Britten's Serenade flirts with plagerism in the first Sonnet. The mood approximates Elegies, until in No. 4 (Rilke's Sonnet XXII, a.k.a. "Tarentella") Danielpour spins off into Leonard Bernstein's Candide. Bernstein has been a recurring influence in the composer's work to the extent that familiarity breeds an irritated sigh (if not contempt). This cycle has even less musical unity than Elegies, despite Miss Huang's very pretty singing, and the phantom-double conducting of Roger Nierenberg, a Danielpour cheerleader from early on. In the Rilke settings he leads New York's Perspectives Ensemble, exquisitely recorded by Stephen Epstein during April 2000. In Elegies, Nierenberg (whose principal base of operations is Jacksonville, FL) puts the London Philharmonic through all kinds of hoops with nary a glitch, and was excitingly recorded in September 1998 by David Mottley in the Henry Wood Hall.

For the sheer sound encoded on this disc, both Elegies and Sonnets from Orpheus [I] are state-of-the-art digitism. Creatively, however, neither work held up through a third hearing, by which time moods were familiar, and texts, too, albeit still tongue-twisting and, in the case of Kim Vaeth's versification, self-preeningly precious.

R.D. (Aug 2002)