Classical Music Review: New Releases

CantabileVocal Quartet Sing Liza Lehmann & Thomas Dunhill.  Liza Lehmann:InA Persian Garden; Thomas Dunhill: Songs Of The River. Cantabile Vocal Quartet (Robin Sellati, soprano; Sara Koulen, mezzo-soprano;Roy Mazzacane, tenor; Jack Sellati, baritone).  (57'11) Available from

Listening to these songs is like turning the pages of an old photograph album in an antique shop, so palpable is the sense of temps perdu.  It is difficult to imagine how popular such music was in the bourgeois salons of fin de siècle America and northern Europe, yetin its day it made household names of composers like Ethelbert Nevin, George F. Root and Liza Lehmann.  Sentimental, strophic and melodramatic, filled with harmonies and melodies easily assimilated by singers and audiences,this music, designed for amateur performance, wooed the listeners of thatsepia-toned era.  It inspired nascent musical theater and provoked Charles Ives, but like the reams of sheet music it sold, it remains for the most part unheard today.

The present CD illustrates the music's charms and limitations. In A Persian Garden (1896) is a cycle of 22 songs based on Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam set for various combinations of the four voices with piano links between the songs.  Ranging from brief recitatives to extended vocal quartets and solo arias, the music has an exoticism and drama that strains against the limitations of the genre.  The Cantabile Vocal Quartet give a wonderful interpretation,their light, individualistic voices are perfectly suited to the music. They are able to follow Lehmann's sometimes strange melodic turns and get their voices around FitzGerald's text, which is not always "singable." Highlights include Jack Sellati's lyrical solo in "Myself when young did eagerly frequent" and the ensemble work in "They say the Lion and the Lizard keep."

Liza Lehmann (1862-1918) was born in London, the daughter of the composer and teacher Amelia Lehmann and the German painter Rudolf Lehmann. She studied composition and singing, the latter with Jenny Lind, and had a successful career as a singer in England (her voice was reportably weak, but her range was quite wide).  She retired in 1894 and, after the publication of In A Persian Garden, began a second career as a composer, mostly for voice.  The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers saysof Lehmann: "Some of [her] procedures, such as her penchant for four-voice cycles and for piano links between songs, seem fossilized as period taste while others remain fresh and have been undervalued."

If Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) composed Songs Of The River when he was teaching at Eton (where his pupils included George Butterworth), the river in the title would be the Severn.  The cycle is a marvellous setting of five poems by poets such as Tennyson and Keats.  The writing for vocal quartet is rich and varied, more counterpuntal and harmonically challenging than Lehmann's songs.  Dunhill was obviously writing for recital performance and the complexity of the arrangments reflect that. This is not to denigrate Lehmann's achievement, this is music composed for a different purpose.  The duet "A Farewell" is particuarly lovely.

Texts are included but at the expense of liner notes.  This is not too big a problem as an internet search under the composers' names turns up quite a bit of information.

-Tony Gualtieri
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