The idea of performing art song with guitar, rather than piano, accompaniment is far from a new one. My own “first contact” took place about 30 years ago, when soprano Kathleen Battle gave one of her Kathleen Battle and Friends recitals at Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center. On this occasion her friend was guitarist Christopher Parkening, and that friendship eventually emerged as an EMI recording.
At the end of last week, Delos released the latest venture into this approach with an album entitled Open Your Heart. The soprano is Laura Claycomb, performing with guitarist Marc Teicholz. The two of them met a little over twenty years ago when Claycomb was an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera. Teicholz had just received his J.D. from the Boalt School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley; but, by that time, he had won first prize at the 1989 International Guitar Foundation of America competition. He now teaches guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
The major work on the album that was composed for voice and guitar is William Walton’s cycle Anon in Love. As the title suggests, Walton drew upon anonymous verses, at least some of which had been used for singing during the Elizabethan period, possibly (but not necessarily) with lute accompaniment. However, Walton was not interested in any source tunes and endowed each text with a decidedly twentieth-century rhetoric. His versions involve both intriguing dissonances and challenging vocal intervallic leaps and are probably the most satisfying portion of the album. There are also settings of four French folk songs by Mátyás Seiber that were also composed for voice and guitar.
Heitor Villa-Lobos is represented by two selections. The most familiar is the opening Aria movement from the fifth of his Bachianas Brasileiras compositions. This was originally scored for soprano and eight cellos, but Villa-Lobos himself prepared the arrangement for soprano and guitar. The other is “Modinha,” the fifth in a cycle of fourteen songs for voice and piano entitled Seréstas (serenades). According to Claycomb’s notes for the accompanying booklet, the arrangement for guitar accompaniment is again by Villa-Lobos.
Many of the remaining selections were arranged by Teicholz. These include the cycle of six popular Spanish songs by Manuel de Falla, Claude Debussy’s “En sourdine” (muted), Georges Bizet’s “Ouvre on cœur” (open your heart), and two songs by Marc Blitzstein, “open your hear” and “until and I heard,” both of which were arranged through work with Dusan Bogdanovic. The other Debussy selection, “Mandoline,” was arranged by Tilman Hoppstock.
For the most part one does not miss the piano on these recordings. Falla was, of course, a pianist; but, in the case of his six songs, he was using the piano to evoke the spirit of the guitar. Thus, the arrangement amounts to restoring the sonorities that had originally inspired the composer.
Most important is that the relationship between vocalist and guitarist tends to be more intimate than when a piano is involved. This is probably because, in performance, the two musicians can sit side-by-side without having to worry about begin separated, at least in part, by a large piece of furniture. While that visual impression is not part of a recorded performance, one has some sense of that proximity on this particular album, which is definitely to the credit of both the performers and the engineering team.
Equally important is the diversity of repertoire covered on this recording, which, more than other such recordings, allows the listener to appreciate a wide variety of relationships that can be established between a vocalist and a guitarist.