Kate Royal's 'A Lesson in Love'

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Tales of cheating and betrayal are a pillar of country music and the blues but, not as our latest Album of the Week illustrates, they enjoy a firm place in the art song repertory too. With “A Lesson in Love,” British soprano Kate Royal arranges 28 songs into a first-person narrative that describes the stages of a young woman's first love: Waiting, The Meeting, The Wedding, The Betrayal. While the musical story doesn’t end happily, it does make for an interesting journey through a wide variety of lieder, mélodies and art songs.

As listeners who heard WQXR's December Orpheus broadcast may recall, Royal is a fast rising star on the opera scene. She has an ongoing contract with EMI and this month she makes her Met Opera debut in Orfeo ed Euridice. In May, she’ll return to Carnegie Hall for a recital at Weill Hall.

One of the enjoyable things about this album is the way it juxtaposes both favorites and rarities from German lieder and French melodies to English and American songs in telling its story. Some of the songs were actual wedding gifts. Three come from Myrthen, a collection of 26 songs that Robert Schumann wrote as a gift to Clara Wieck. Similarly, the “Hochzeitlich Lied” (Bridal Song) is a gift from Richard Strauss to his wife, to celebrate the birthday of their son (which fittingly quotes from the wedding scene in Wagner's Tannhauser). A French variation on the theme comes in Debussy's “Apparition,” dedicated to the wife of a Parisian architect with whom the composer had a passionate affair in 1884.

The story does ultimately head south, of course, and among the “Betrayal” numbers are Brahms’s poignant “Am Sonntag Morgen,” Britten’s “O Waly, Waly” and the traditional ballads “Danny Boy” and “I Will Walk with my Love.” William Bolcom's poignant cabaret song, "Waitin” provides both an introduction and conclusion to the whole collection and shows off Royal’s supple and stylish legato singing. Throughout the collection, Malcolm Martineau's keyboard contributions are of his usual high caliber.

A Lesson in Love
Kate Royal, soprano
Malcolm Martineau, piano
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Q2's Album of the Week, as featured on The New Canon:

Teeming with jealousy, rage, passion, murder and a ghost, Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister has all the makings of an opera. However the 2004 piece (commissioned by the Münchener Kammerorchester), written for string orchestra, contains no words. No matter. In 30 minutes, Cruel Sister has all the makings of a five-hour French grand opera. Two sisters, one “bright as the sun,” the other “cold and dark” are courted by the same man. The latter drowns the former in order to marry the suitor, but her wedding takes a haunting turn when two minstrels show up, playing a harp made out of the dead sister’s breastbone.

While inspired by an old English folk ballad of the same name (and its ensuing cover by British folk-rockers Pentagle from 1970), Wolfe takes the story into her own expert hands. She weaves in the imagery of the jarring and gruesome murder, the dead sister’s body floating in the sea and the climactic return of her specter during the wedding with a touch of synesthesia through pizzicato riffs and churning bass lines. Wolfe’s meticulous post-minimalist prowess is given a touch of murky, Gothic horror and the work grips you with its ice-cold hand long after the final chords.

Under conductor Brad Lubman, Ensemble Resonanz elevates Cruel Sister to an incandescent plane, delving into the psyche of the titular murderous sibling the way Judi Dench once mined the character traits of Lady Macbeth.

As a decadent desert, Enesmble Resonanz’s recording for Cantaloupe Music also includes their own Wolfe commission, Fuel, a multimedia project that captures what Wolfe herself describes as “the whir of incessant mechanisms.” Like its preceding work on the album, Fuel is equally propelling and churning, two characteristics we’ve come to know and love in Wolfe.

Julia Wolfe
Cruel Sister
Ensemble Resonanz
Cantaloupe Records
Available at Arkivmusic.com