Vincent Persichetti: Harmonium
Sherry Overholt (soprano), Joshua Pierce (piano)
Recorded at Lefrak Auditorium, Queens College, New York (January 2012) – 60’17
MSR Classics MS 1432 – Booklet in English includes complete text
Here we have a world premiere recording of an ambitious work composed in 1951. The first question that pops to mind is: “Does the work deserve its obscurity or not?” The quick answer is “No” - but there are understandable reasons for its obscurity.
Reason number one is the work’s length: a full hour of singing by one performer is daunting for both performer and audience. Reason number two is the nature of the content: 20 poems by Wallace Stevens from a collection of his poems, titled Harmonium, published in 1931. (An earlier volume containing most of the poems was published in 1923; a remarkably small number of copies were sold, but the 1931 edition became at least a succès d’estime and Stevens became very influential.) As the wonderfully informative program notes state, the poems are noted for their “extreme opacity”, another way of saying they are hard to understand. There is no story, no dramatic arc. Persichetti has seized on hints within each poem to give a great deal of expressive variety to the work, but as an aural-only musical experience, it requires a great deal of concentrated listening.
Stevens is noted not just as a seminal modernist poet, but one who worked at a day job in a field considered remote from the avant-garde, namely as an executive in an insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut. However, at the time his poems were issued, Hartford became (for a brief period) the American foothold for surrealism under the dynamic direction of A. Everett “Chick” Austen who ran the city’s art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum. The museum hosted the first American surrealist art show and the world premiere of the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein Four Saints in Three Acts. I can’t help but feel that a performance of Harmonium ought to be staged somehow to reflect this artistic ferment. (Just as György Kurtág’s 50-minute-long Kafka-Fragmente benefited by being given a dynamic staged performance by Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre Company - reviewed on this website.)
As for the twenty songs in the cycle: most are very short (two minutes or less) and longer ones are further subdivided into the sections of the Stevens poem. The longest is the final number, “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird” which has 13 sections and could well be described as a song cycle on its own. (If the title sounds familiar this could be that it has been set by other composers as well - e.g., Lukas Foss.) Eric Salzman, in his informative notes, describes Persichetti’s use of “dissonance, consonance, bitonality, neo-classical rhythmic energy, smooth flow, piano virtuosity, expressionist disconnect, tone painting, and abstraction.” (I couldn’t put it better myself.) This is by no means a dry academic exercise but a lively, inventive set of creations that reflect the almost overwhelming multiplicity of expressions in the poems.
Voice and piano intertwine dynamically throughout. (Here is yet another situation where “accompaniment” is absolutely the wrong word in describing the piano part.)
Parts (most notably the third poem, “Theory”) will remind the listener of Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson composed the year before Persichetti set Harmonium. (Persichetti also set some Dickinson poems.) The sixth poem “The wind shifts” is onomatopoeic. The ninth song, “In the season of grapes”, resorts to straightforward operatic declamation. Another cycle the work brings to mind is Eight Songs for Mad King (Peter Maxwell Davies, 1969).
Both soprano Sherry Overholt and pianist Joshua Pierce give fully engaged performances. The soprano’s bio notes her extensive recital experience but fails to give information as to how often she has performed all or some of these songs. I would guess a good deal. (Some might not like her vibrato, always a fraught subject.)
Wallace Stevens is an established name in the American canon. He is probably more widely read and studied than Vincent Persichetti. It would be great if this well-produced (but still challenging - even daunting for many) recording were to result in more live performances of this intriguing work.