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JOHN TERAUDS | Canadian Art Song Project: Cloud Light – Songs of Norbert Palej (review)

By John Terauds on March 14, 2016

Cloud Light, a new release of art songs by Toronto-based composer Norbert Palej reflects the here and now in the Canadian Art Song Project.

The Canadian Art Song Project: Cloud Light
The Canadian Art Song Project: Cloud Light

Cloud Light: Songs of Norbert Palej. Michele Bogdanowicz, Peter McGillivray, Lawrence Wiliford, Jacqueline Woodley and Steven Philcox. Centrediscs. Runtime: 59:29.

New music starts life with such handicaps. In live performance, the audience member hears a piece once, often alongside something very familiar that was programmed to help sell tickets. One of the enduring qualities of great works is how they reveal new details to us with each repetition. To get repetition, you need a recording, but who is going to pay for a recording of new creations that may sell barely more than 200 copies – to the friends and families of the people who were involved in the album.

Cloud Light, a new release of art songs by Toronto-based composer Norbert Palej from the Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label, clears the second hurdle. And thank goodness it has come our way, because each listen reveals fresh wonders to appreciate.

The first quality to reveal itself is the brilliance of performers, all of whom have ties to the Canadian Art Song Project, a recent effort to commission new works within our borders, to nurture both composers and performers on the enduring pleasures of the art song itself, and expose both performers and audiences to new repertoire. Art song does not have to be a stroll through a venerable European musical museum gallery; it can and should be a reflection of the lives and emotions of people just like us, in the here and now.

Palej’s songs have found advocates not only with fine voices, but with the craft and chops to translate often significant technical demands into compelling music. You don’t hear the hard work here; it’s the beauty of the words and music that is front and centre.

Soprano Jacqueline Woodley, mezzo Michele Bogdanowicz, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and bass-baritone Peter McGillivray do a remarkable job of bringing these new (all written in the part five years) works to life in compelling ways, expertly accompanied by pianist Steven Philcox.

And what about those songs?

To Palej’s great credit, they manage to evoke sounds and textures that are familiar and accessible while deftly sounding fresh at the same time. Best of all, most of the time, Palej finds ways to complement the music that is naturally present in poetry.

Most of us need to know what something unfamiliar may sound like, to help us decide whether or not to give it a try. I would venture that Palej’s settings most closely evoke the great poem-setters of 20th century England. Like the songs of Vaughan Williams or George Butterworth or Benjamin Britten, these Canadian ones lift their poetry into a higher sphere, heightening emotion and effect. Like Britten, Palej is economical, elegant. Each note, chord, ostinato or silence has a clear purpose; there is nothing extraneous here.

There is also a visceral quality to the songs on Cloud Light, despite the airy title and frequently atmospheric themes. The singers and Philcox’s sure fingers heighten this palpable force.

It all starts with the Three Norwegian Songs, where McGillivray launches from quasi-spoken narrative into a flight of falsetto rhapsodizing in the short and sweet “With a Rose.” The bass-baritone gets to dig deeply in the third of these songs, a compelling setting of Henrik Ibsen’s “Moonlight Stroll After a Ball.”

Four Lyrical Moments set Polish songs in clouds of atmosphere before we get to the title cycle that really makes this album: 14 songs based on poems from Jan Zwicky’s Thirty-Seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences. Each setting is masterful; some are downright bewitching.

The album closes dramatically with Ovid’s telling of the “Demise of Argus Panoptes,” sung by the full quartet of voices in Latin, unaccompanied much of the time.

There is a lot to savour here – hopefully enough to inspire others to program these songs as often as possible, so that they have a deserved chance to be heard by as many people as possible both here and beyond our borders.

Cloud Light: Songs of Norbert Palej is available for purchase, via iTunes or Amazon.com.

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John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

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