Rose in Bloom
Erin Morley (soprano), Gerald Martin Moore (piano), Ransom Wilson (flute)
rec. 2022, Elmwood Road, UK
Orchid Classics ORC100294 [65]

This is an extraordinary recording in a very literal sense.  I requested the disc based solely on the very far from ordinary programme.  I cannot remember a single-disc programme where such diverse composers from Saint-Säens to Berg, Milhaud to Zemlinsky, Rachmaninov to Sullivan – all capped off by Ivor Novello – combine in such euphonious harmony.  Then coloratura soprano Erin Morley starts to sing and there is nothing ordinary at all about her stunning voice and innate musicality.  Morley is an established opera star with her breakthrough role singing Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier for The Met a decade ago.  Her Royal Opera House debut was as recently as last year as Gilda in Rigoletto.  With such a major career it is something of a surprise that her discography is relatively small which possibly excuses my ignorance of such a compelling performer.

This CD titled Rose in Bloom is in fact Morley’s debut on disc in a solo recital and I suspect it has the potential to become a classic.  By choice I do not often listen to mixed composer song recitals,  I tend to prefer single composer collections or extended song cycles, but this programme – twenty songs by eleven composers – is a triumphant example of how to take individually fine works but the mould them into something greater than the sum of its parts.  The overarching concept of the programme is that of a garden and the life – flora and fauna – that exists within it.  As well as beauty there is transience, death, decay and rebirth.  Another neat analogy Morley makes in her personal note in the liner is the sense of a garden having an organic unity where ‘rare’ flowers can flourish alongside familiar favourites.

So to the music.  Morley sets her credentials out from the very first bars of Saint-Säens’ La Libellule [The Dragonfly].  I am not sure I have ever heard a solo song by this composer who apparently was very critical/selective of French poetry – so here he wrote the text himself.  This is a sparkling ‘waltz song’ with cascading vocal writing requiring effortless agility and ease in the very highest range – Morley tosses off the high E over two octaves above middle C with almost indifferent ease.  But Saint-Säens’ dragonfly is not just a thing of beauty; “Radiant she scampers over the half-open lotus flowers”, it is also a predator; “her motto is cruelty, carnage satisfies her implacable beauty”.  Morley’s voice is genuinely beautiful in its own right; very well focussed with excellent evenness across the entire range with her vibrato and excellent trills in complete control.  Her French is likewise clear and idiomatic (as is her German – I cannot comment on her Russian).  But what I like is that this is not simply a stream of golden tones; here and throughout the programme Morley deploys her remarkable instrument to tell the story of the song; the steel beneath the silk.  A remarkable song which few performers dare to record – Discogs suggests just one other performance from 1994.

I do not intend to go through this recital song by song showering them with superlatives  – which would easily be the case and would end up rather repetitive!  At the centre of the recital is a song cycle by Ricky Ian Gordon titled Huit Chansons de Fleurs.  Given that Gordon is American and the chosen texts are all in English the French title for the cycle seems idiosyncratic.   As is my preference with completely unfamiliar works I prefer to listen first without any background knowledge into the composer or music.  My impressions are that this is an attractive and interesting cycle and my notes included three comparison composers/works.  They were the Copland 12 Poems Of Emily Dickinson, Samuel Barber and Adam Guettel’s hybrid song cycle/musical theatre work Myths and Hymns.  This is a case of musical reminiscences rather than ‘sounding like’.  I was interested to note that the first song in the cycle is a Dickinson setting while the Wikipedia article on Gordon references him as being “steeped in the traditions of cabaret and musical theatre”.  The vocal writing has an essential direct simplicity which is quite different from the display items here.  Given that the complete cycle runs for 26 minutes or so it is quite a bold decision to include the work in full on this debut recital.  That the music does not feel out of place in the exalted company of the other composers is a tribute both to the work and the sensitivity and skill of Morley’s performance.

More familiar is Brahms’ gorgeous Lerchengesang – number 2 of his Four Songs Op.70 which is a model of sophisticated simplicity and sung here with exactly the right sense of poise and weightless serenity.  Morley is joined by flautist Ransom Wilson for a pair of songs; Micheal Head’s Bird-song and Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Neath my lattice through the night from The Rose of Persia.  Head’s music is not exactly over-represented in the catalogue and I cannot find another performance of this song.  Here different birds are taken to represent the different seasons.  The flute starts as an imitative commentary on the singer and the text but ultimately the two join together is a kind of rapturous cadenza – as impressive here as it is beautiful.  At 5:17 this is the longest single item on the disc but for me it proves to be something of a discovery.  The Sullivan is familiar from the complete performance conducted by Tom Higgins with Sally Harrison singing this aria.  Interesting to note how at almost exactly the same basic tempo Morley injects far greater pert energy into the music as well as singing it in the original (higher) key.  She also retains the original cadenza – as does Harrison – which features Wilson on flute again – but it has to be said Morley sounds a lot freer and without strain in her higher key than Harrison does in hers.  This is a typical Sullivan song/aria – attractive if just a bit predictable but the level of the performance here lifts it into the realm of being rather impressive and engaging.

In no small degree my reason for requesting this disc to review hung on the inclusion of Ivor Novello’s We’ll gather lilacs.  Morley was introduced to this song during the covid lockdowns by her teacher and pianist on this disc Gerald Martin Moore.  For sure Novello was a sentimentalist but he was also a composer blessed with a genuinely remarkable melodic gift.  His tunes may be superficially simple but it is their directness and unaffected emotional connection that was why he was a musical superstar in his day and why the songs themselves still have a resonance today – as proven here.  To conclude this collection with the Novello – given the stature of the music that precedes it – is quite a statement of belief in the impact and power of the song.  Morley makes one last unexpected choice – for this one song she accompanies herself on the piano.  She plays very well but if I am being very picky – and after the brilliance of this disc the standard is so high – I think that is an error.  This is not a technical question but actually the way in which she interprets the keyboard part.  As an accompanist she indulges herself as a singer too much – the basic tempo is pretty slow and she is prone to spreading the accompanying chords in a way that makes an already sentimental song too schmaltzy.  In some ways this is a backhanded compliment to the excellence of Moore’s discreet but sensitive playing of the piano parts throughout the rest of the programme.  I love this song and I do really enjoy the technical skill of Morley’s performance as well as its utter sincerity.  That great singers can and do engage with this music is evident when comparing Ben Heppner’s ardent (orchestral) version which appeared as part of his “My Secret Heart” album.  Heppner’s great good sense is to sing the song relatively straight and let the music carry the emotion without over-emoting.

But this is still a stunning recital and if I hear anything better this year it will have to be very special indeed.  Orchid Classics have backed up the artistic excellence here with a very well-engineered disc providing an unforced and natural balance between voice and piano with Morley’s voice in particular caught with clarity yet warmth and a very attractive bloom – although the location/type of recording venue which is simply listed as “Elmwood Road” is a mystery.  The English-only liner notes – with full song texts in their original language and English translation only [if applicable] are extensive, detailed and informative.  Clearly this is a project which is the result of a lot of careful planning and thought as well as enormous amounts of skill to carry it off as well as it has been.  A genuine joy to hear so much unfamiliar music performed with such sovereign technique and musical sensitivity.

Nick Barnard

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Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Camille Saint-S
äens (1835-1921)
La Libellule
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
The Rose enslaves the Nightingale
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Die Nachtigall
Camille Saint-Säens (1835-1921)
Le Rossignol et la Rose (Parysatis)
Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956)
Huit Chansons de Fleurs
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
Tais-toi, Babillarde
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
Vöglein Schwermut
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Micheal Head (1900-1976)
Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900)
‘Neath my lattice through the night (The Rose of Persia)
Ivor Novello (1893-1951)
We’ll gather lilacs (Perchance to Dream)