The pairing of these two contemporary song cycles makes for an exceptionally strong program, and the works are interpreted by mezzo-soprano Aylish Kerrigan and pianist Dearbhla Collins with extraordinary commitment, skill, and style.
Kerrigan has a long history with both pieces. In addition to her reputation as a pre-eminent interpreter of contemporary song and a champion of Irish composers, Kerrigan is a scholar whose research on Schoenberg earned her a doctorate, and her intimate detailed acquaintance with the songs is very much in evidence in this recording. So, too, are her personal acquaintance and work with Seóirse Bodley and his poet Brendan Kennelley, and her own Irish heritage is a major factor in her successful approach to The Girl.
The Schoenberg cycle comes from the composer’s period of free atonality (1908–1909) and uses the erotic, exotic texts of poet Stefan George to trace the union and separation of a man and woman against a background of a magical, mythical garden. Replete with difficult pitching and complex harmonic language, each short, intense song gradually builds the cycle to the breaking point of romantic and sexual longing before dissolving into an existential foreboding. Kerrigan uses her expressive mezzo with its comprehensive palette of colors to point words skillfully, vary dynamics expressively, and caress or thrust as the line demands. Most of all, one has the sense that the singer is one with the music and the texts, and the performance comes from an inner place. Collins partners with similar technical and interpretive dexterity on the piano.
Seórise Bodley’s cycle The Girl is a major Irish work, which when it was composed in 1978 was seen as a bold composition combining classical elements with Irish traditional music, themes, and texts. Bodley admired Schoenberg, especially the Viennese composer’s atonal period, and as a pianist had performed the opus 15. His own cycle tells the tale of a young girl who is pregnant and unmarried and who, despite her passionate love of life, finds herself driven to suicide by society’s conventions. The 25 songs, each short and deceptively simple verbally and musically, all come together to form a poignant narrative. Kerrigan’s instinct for drama allows her to inhabit the central character and find every interpretive beat, while Collins plays the music with a disarming truthfulness.
The CD is a studio recording with excellent sound and a meticulous attention to nuance and detail. Kerrigan provides the liner notes on the composers, and there are complete texts in German and English, as well as composer and artist biographies. ‘
Fans of contemporary song will definitely want to add this recording to their collection, as will Schoenberg admirers who may be more familiar with some of the composers other more frequently performed song cycles. As for the Bodley portion of the recording, this is a work well deserving of the definitive performance it receives here.