P. SÁNCHEZ Magus. Horizon: For Harlan. The Journey - Kayleen Sánchez (sop); Paul Sánchez (pn) - SOUNDSET 1081 (68:51)
This is one of the most beautiful discs in my collection. I am referring to the presentation as much as to the music, from the colors of the predominantly alchemical illustrations (interested readers should search out the writings of Paul Cowlan to really appreciate how rich this body of art is), Paul Sánchez’s mode of expression is direct in that musical surfaces are most often slow moving and meditative. Yet there is real depth to these songs. Soprano Kayleen Sánchez has the perfect voice, pure and unshakably direct in delivery; Sánchez plays his own piano parts with real involvement. An exception to that slow and meditative state is the third song of Magus, “The Prediction of Kadwaladr”; even here, the drama abates into the most contrastive simplicity. This cycle takes as its point of departure The Book of Taliesin, a Medieval work rendered in translation by W. F. Skene and J. G. Evans. The gradual journey from resignation and regret to hope is experienced as an opening out of the human spirit; Kayleen Sánchez’s purity of voice and total control of her instrument is utterly remarkable. Haunting in the extreme, the 23-minute song cycle Magus will be with you for a long time afterwards. The commentary on the cycle by Dr. Michael Morey is incredibly insightful.
The 10 songs of Horizon: For Harlan take around half an hour to perform. The poet, Harland Payne, was a dear friend of the composer’s. Of the three cycles, this is the only one with texts originally in English. Payne died unexpectedly while camping in Nevada. Sánchez isolates stars as a motif in Harlan’s poetry - specifically, how we as humans relate to stars. The poems speak of realizations that we are made up of stardust; another speaks of transformation through cremation, scattered then “like stars out into a new reality of life.” The order of poems traces the journey from ourselves as stars through to our deaths. The cycle begins with humans watching stars from a campfire; it ends with those humans being part of the stars they observed. Here, beauty is everywhere. Take the stunningly hypnotic piano part of “Una Casa Nueva” (the text is in English despite the title). Sánchez himself finds full beauty here, melding the beauty of transition (commonly called death) with the sweetest nostalgia for life just passed. The sweet recitations of “Risk” offer an invitation to fully engage in life with a light touch; the piano swirls of “Horizon” intoxicate, but in a very different, perhaps more mystical, way than the Impressionists. There is sheer stillness inherent in the solo voice final song, “Listen” - infinitely memorable. This is music that demands rigor and control from its performers, and the vocal talents of Kayleen Sánchez should be particularly lauded for this. Not for one second on the entire disc does she allow her focus to drop.
The final cycle, The Journey, is the shortest, coming in at around a quarter of an hour. Setting the Greek sensualist poet Sappho in translations by Sherod Santos. Composed for the celebration of the Sánchez’s own wedding, the music clearly has special resonance here. The piano’s opening to the first song, “The Dance,” has an almost fearsome aspect to it; unsurprisingly, this contrasts with moments of huge delicacy (the brief “Evening Star”) and indeed magic (the arrival of consonance at the very close of “Aphrodite’s Return,” the central poem of the five). The scholarly articles in the booklet are a joy. The composer writes that the settings here are of authors who have touched him deeply, and that much is immediately obvious.
- Colin Clarke (Fanfare)
These are three song cycles by American composer Paul Sánchez, on poems of Taliesin, Harlan Payne, and Sappho. This is my first encounter with Sánchez’s music. He is in his mid-30s, studied in Spain with Alicia de Larrocha, and has a career as a pianist and composer, as well as pedagogue. I find no listing for him in the Fanfare Archive - only a much earlier composer with the same last name.
This is hauntingly beautiful music, lovingly performed by soprano Kayleen Sánchez (the composer’s wife) and the composer. The first group, Magus, is a setting of sixth-century poems by the ancient poet Taliesin; For Harlan are poems by the composer’s friend Harland Payne; and The Journey sets poems by the ancient Greek Sappho. The music combines an almost Medieval feel with some modern harmonies. Soprano Sánchez has a pure, lyric voice which she uses with imagination. In particular her ability to vary vibrato for expressive purposes is very telling. The very first note of the first song starts with an almost pure tone, and then the vibrato widens to add expressivity. Her laser-like focus never (well, almost never) turns hard or too brilliant. Most of the tempos are slow, most of the music lyrical. There is, however, contrast; the opening of “The Prediction of Kadwaladr” (in Magus) captures the drama and urgency of the text: “The knight of the swift bay horse with the double face, creates turmoil: With treachery afoot a blessing, his death and burial in Snowdonia....”
These songs bring together in a unique and effective way an ancient and a modern character. They are generously filled with melodic inspiration and evocative atmosphere. “A New Day,” the second song in Horizon: For Harlan, is beautiful in its simplicity. This is followed by a more bittersweet, but ultimately peaceful, “Winter Evening Moonlight.” All three of these cycles are works of originality and a distinctive musical personality, and any listener interested in contemporary vocal music should be aware of them.
The disc provides detailed and very helpful notes about each cycle, and Soundset will make the texts available for download (soundset.com). This is very important, as this is music that is deeply reflective of, and related to, the texts that are set. The performances are clearly just what the composer wants, since the singer is his wife and he is the pianist (and a very able one at that). I can recommend this with enthusiasm. The descriptor that keeps coming to my mind is “hauntingly beautiful.”
- Henry Fogel (Fanfare)
The "jewel box" that this CD comes in is more like a small hardbound book of about 50 pages, so CD companies, even in this era of supposed declining interest in physical recorded objects, are continuing to engage in lavish production values in their releases - at least in certain cases. Despite the 50 pages of detailed notes on the music by Dr. Michael Morey, there is nary a scintilla of information about the composer, Paul Sánchez, who is hardly a household name - at least in the Canfield household. Regrettably, only one of the poems set by Sánchez is given in toto in the booklet, but Soundset is making all of the poems available in a downloadable document to purchasers of the disc.
The first of the three cycles, Magus, sets freely adapted poetry by the sixth-century Celtic bard, Taliesin. This character, about whom as much legend swirls as fact, was said to have absorbed all the "wisdom" contained in a cauldron by sucking on his thumb after it had been burned by it. The references to the epistemological writings of Taliesin include a repeated use of the phrase, "I have been ...," apparently a reference to his alleged shape-shifting ability. Consequently, the six songs of this cycle are full of mystery, and employ much use of chant-like fragmented phrases and vocal dissonances that float over secure tonal centers in the piano. The piano part in this cycle is generally sparse, using rising motifs and harmonic shifts to convey the idea of the gaining of knowledge by this mysterious figure. Soprano Kayleen Sánchez sings these songs with a white sound, almost entirely devoid of vibrato, an approach that works very well with the style of Sánchez’s music.
The second cycle, Horizon, sets 10 poems of Sánchez’s friend Harlan Payne, a neurologist who enjoyed writing poetry. After Payne’s sudden death on a vacation in Nevada, Sánchez asked his widow if he could set some of his departed friend’s poetry. Receiving a large parcel of his writings in positive response to his request, he selected the poems that form the present cycle. If there is an idée fixe in Payne’s poetry, it is that of stars, and their resemblance to many human activities, such as camp fires that produce star-like sparks. The cycle uses several "constellations" of notes, one of which is F , A , A , D, C , G, B, E, G , A , this one more-or-less centered on F. Because of the repeated pitches, these sequences cannot be considered tone rows. As in the first cycle, the vocal lines are quite simple, employing mainly conjunct motion, while the piano parts draw on a number of equally simple devices, including walking lines in the first song, "Starlight," gently repeated pianissimo single notes, as in the second, “A New Day,” or descending scalar lines in the third, “Winter Evening Moonlight.” Only in the sixth song, “Risk,” does the rhythmic activity and tempo pick up appreciably, the structure of the piano part also becoming more complex. In this song, the voice assumes a more Sprechstimme quality, with punctuations of the text the order of the day more than melodic lines. A dramatic high point is reached in the ninth song, “Horizon,” wherein the pianist is required to play rapid streams of notes all over the keyboard, essentially being “accompanied” by the singer’s much simpler part.
The CD closes with όβοιπορία (The Journey), giving me a rare opportunity to utilize the Greek font on MS-Word. The Greek name comes from the fact that the six poems in this cycle are drawn from the fragments of the Hellenic poetess Sappho as translated by Sherod Santos, who gives a nice testimonial to the music of Sánchez in the booklet. The songs actually describe many kinds of journeys, including those from day to night, from light to darkness, from callow youth to seasoned maturity, and from a loveless state to a loving one. In a sense, the journey may even be considered as one from the time of
Sappho to our own time. The opening song, “The Dance,” reminded me a good bit of one of the songs in the cycle Pilgrim Songs by Mark Louis Lehman, a talented fellow composer and critic over at American Record Guide, whose slightly modally based music also suggests distant times and places. The third song of The Journey, “Evening Star,” opens with a very dramatic gesture, an outlier from the mostly gentle figures that Sánchez uses throughout these
songs, and the fifth song, “Eros,” amounts almost to a brief piano concerto over which the singer floats, so many are the notes in this movement. No one will accuse the composer’s accompaniments of lacking variety. As it turned out, composing The Journey produced much more than a mere musical work for
Sánchez, since the singer he found to perform it eventually became his wife, and the cycle ended up as her wedding gift.
Despite Kayleen Sánchez’s fairly monochromatic voice (she does employ a little more vibrato in the last two cycles than she does in the first), her voice does suit these texts and its accompanying music well, and so I found this disc thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. I do believe that readers of Fanfare who are enthusiastic about well-written song cycles will share my enjoyment. Accordingly, warmly recommended.
- David DeBoor Canfield (Fanfare)