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Roads now taken

Roads now taken

Three new albums put famous poetry to music

Poetry, as it has been said, is like love in that almost anything that one says about it is true. But is almost any music to which a poem can be set somehow “true” as well, if only to the poem’s spirit?

The singers and musicians behind three new albums apparently think so.

With Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis (Centaur), the wife-husband team of Lynda Poston-Smith (soprano) and Robert Carl Smith (piano) present settings by the Fort Worth composer William Mac Davis of poems by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence and of Experience), Christopher Smart (from Hymns for the Amusement of Children), Rainer Maria Rilke, Wendell Berry, Hildegard von Bingen, half a dozen anonymous Medieval or Elizabethan versifiers, and the author of what’s commonly called the “Priestly Blessing” in Numbers 6.

Davis’ art-song melodies command immediate attention, respecting the metrical contours of the lyrics while taking exciting rhythmic and dynamic liberties rooted in a sober appreciation of the texts’ latent emotions. But what’s most striking about Fearful Symmetry is Poston-Smith’s diction.

Whereas many classically trained vocalists sacrifice sense on the altar of sensation, Poston-Smith achieves a healthy balance and maintains it even at her most dramatic. The pathos that she quietly wrings from “A Sick Rose” allows the inner music of the poem’s eight brief lines to unfold with a patient intensity. 

In Shakespeare’s Sonnets (ArcoDiva), the sopranos Lucie Silkenová and Markéta Foukalová take turns achieving and maintaining a similar sense-sensation balance, although first impressions might suggest otherwise: They sing seven of the 11 sonnets in their native Czech.

This decision, however, is not excessively problematic. Anyone with internet access can easily track down Shakespeare’s originals and thereby get their gists. And the sprightly accompaniment of the Duo Teres (the violinist Lucia Fulka Kopsová and the chamber guitarist Tomáš Honek) ensures that the melodies take on an enjoyable life of their own.

The melodies come from the Czech composers Zdenek Merta, Matej Benko, Juraj Filas, Lukáš Hurník, Martin Brunner, Štěpánka Balcarová, Jiří Chvojka, and Ondřej Kukal, none of whom seems constricted by notions of the “right” way to treat the Bard. Merta’s settings of Sonnet 144, for instance, and Benko’s of Sonnet 39 sound like fantasias on echoes of Satie, and Filas’ 7½-minute setting of Sonnet 1 juxtaposes a romantically yearning tune that wouldn’t sound out of place in the canon of Nino Rota with an energetic, operatic aria keyed to the sonnet’s cautionary second quatrain.

Purists, meanwhile, troubled by the composers’ tendency to repeat, re-sequence, or omit whole lines will be glad to know that all of Sonnet 18 (which is best understood as the anti-climax of the “procreation sonnet” sequence and not as a piece of “homoeroticism”) survives intact.

That sonnet (under the title “Summer’s Day”) also appears on The Road Not Taken (RNT), the debut album by the jazz singer and multi-instrumentalist Johno (aka John Keating). It joins the equally famous Sonnet 130 (“Mistress Eyes”) and well-known poems by Robert Frost (two), Mahmoud Darwish, Lord Byron, Robert Herrick, William Blake (an excerpt), and Rudyard Kipling.

But if the conventionality of Johno’s taste in verse is only exacerbated by his similarly conventional taste in cover songs (John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, “The Long and Winding Road”), his serpentine blend of jazz, adult-contemporary pop, and world music of a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor adds a remedial dollop of the exotic.

And as a singer who falls somewhere between Michael Franks and Donovan—clear enunciators both—Johno is always easy to understand.