Rustling Flights of Wings (review)

Stanley Grill: Rustling Flights of Wings

Rustling Flights of Wings shares many qualities with another collection of short vocal works recently reviewed at textura, Scott Perkins’ Navona release Whispers of Heavenly Death. In each case, a comprehensive account of the American composer’s vocal writing is presented; in addition, the songs aren’t performed by a large orchestral ensemble but one or two musicians, a move that in turn amplifies the intimate character of the songs and performances; and in each case the composer has set his music to poetic material, with the music thoughtfully conceived with the texts in mind. One key difference separates the recordings, however: whereas Perkins’ classical art songs are performed by a handful of vocalists, those on Stanley Grill’s are sung by one only, soprano Nancy Allen Lundy. Joining her are pianist Stephen Gosling and violinist Ralph Farris, with the former accompanying her on three cycles and the latter one.

That Lundy is the sole singer featured is hardly a handicap; if anything, her warm, lustrous voice proves a natural vehicle for Grill’s lyricism, and with Gosling and Farris performing at an equally high level, the composer’s material is well-served by all involved. The choice of texts proves as well-considered; in Grill’s own words, “My favourite poets write words that seem to sing off the page and so setting their words to music is a necessary and natural response”; certainly, the writers whose works he selected for the song treatments (Hart Crane, Rilke, Lorca, Verlaine, and Sandburg among them) and the performers involved do their part to help bring the NYC-raised composer’s works to vivid life. Collectively and individually, the performers bring a staggering array of credits to the project: boasting a repertoire exceeding thirty roles, Lundy has sung with opera companies and at festivals throughout the world; Gosling is a member of a number of ensembles and has collaborated with Pierre Boulez, John Zorn, Steve Reich, and others; and Farris has likewise worked with a vast range of artists, from Ethel (the string quartet he founded and directs) and Martin Scorsese to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and Bang On A Can.

As represented on this release (which Farris produced), Grill’s music feels both contemporary and classic, rooted as it is in time-honoured techniques and rich in melody, harmony, and counterpoint. His songs are models of concision, too, with only three of the twenty-four presented nudging past four minutes. The writer whose name will be perhaps least familiar is C.F. Cilliers, whose writings Grill discovered through Facebook and, after he was summarily smitten by their quality, set to music. Just as Grill’s material is enhanced by the performers, so too are Cilliers’ words by Grill’s nine treatments. Words like graceful, luminous, playful, and incandescent come to mind as the songs appear, with the sensitive presentation by Lundy and Gosling deepening their poignancy.
The five-part The Violin Sings in a Common Language originated when Grill composed its first song, Rilke’s “Der Nachbar” (The Neighbour), for violinist/soprano Ursula Fiedler and subsequently encountered other poems that use the violin as a central image. Struck by the idea of gathering the songs into a cycle featuring violin, Grill proceeded to do so, imparting through the gesture the idea of music as a language capable of uniting people, no matter how different. Consistent with that, the songs, which include the plaintive “Der Nachbar” and heartbreaking “Chanson d’automne” (Autumn Song), are sung in their original languages, German, French, Spanish, English, and Dutch, and performed magnificently by Lundy and Farris, who exhibit a particularly deep connection with one another.

As poised as the opening cycles are the sparkling vocal-and-piano performances of 4 Songs to Poems by Hart Crane and 6 Songs, Grill’s heartfelt treatment of poems by W.B. Yeats. In the booklet included in the release, the composer states, “The best of my music has arrived, rather inexplicably, as part of a personal effort to understand the world and myself. It is, in a way, an act of translation. The world says something, I try to understand it, and then translate it into musical language.” How fortunate are we to be the beneficiaries of that effort.

January 2019