This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
The latest CD release from the Canadian Art Song Project features four works by Derek Holman. Three song cycles are performed by tenor Colin Ainsworth with Stephen Ralls at the piano. This team presented all three works in a very fine concert at the Four Seasons Centre in October 2014. For the CD Ralls is joined by Bruce Ubukata for the piano duet, Variations on a Melody by Dr. Arne.
The first cycle, A Lasting Spring (2004), sets texts by Shakespeare and Herrick. It’s quite typical of Holman’s work in this genre. It’s largely tonal with an interesting, complex piano part. Having a setting of the Lament from Cymbeline that’s not the well-known Finzi is a plus.
Variations on a Melody by Dr. Arne (1999) takes a melody from Arne’s Artaxerxes and morphs it into various, typically baroque, forms. There are turns and trill, scales, a stormy/boisterous passage and an elegiac conclusion. It’s playful and fun and carried off with aplomb by Ralls and Ubukata.
The Death of Orpheus (2005) sets texts by Ovid (trans. Golding) and, again, Shakespeare. Golding’s translation is in iambic heptameters but Holman more or less ignores this breaking and reshaping the lines at will. It’s dense and requires a fair amount of effort from the listener to unwrap the allusive complexity of the verse.
A Play of Passion (2012) moves into darker territory. The 16th and 20th century texts all, in varied ways, dwell on the ephemeral nature of one human life in the context of renewal on a broader scale. The musical mood varies widely from the wistful setting of Raleigh’s A Play of Passion through the more aggressive treatment of Joyce’s I hear an army and the quietly sombre mood for Daniel’s Care-charmer Sleepe. The last two songs are settings of part of Lawrence Binyon’s 1942 poem The Burning of the Leaves and Sassoon’s optimistic Everyone Sang.
Both Ralls and Ainsworth are clearly totally committed to this music. Ainsworth’s fairly light tenor and impeccable diction are ideal and Ralls is a very accomplished accompanist. The recording, made in the Glenn Gould Studio, is clean and well balanced.