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Ellen Mandel: a wind has blown the rain away; songs of e.e. cummings poems

Ellen Mandel, a wind has blown the rain away, Todd Almond, baritone, Ellen Mandel, piano. Brite Records, © 2003, 51:01, $18; Available from CDBaby.

The final version of this CD, for which a teaser was received and a "preview" posted previously at www.cvnc.org, is now available. Six songs were added to make a total of fifteen, but it's still a bit short for today's CD world, and one wishes there were yet a few more. This is not a song cycle in the sense of Schubert's Die Winterreise, for example, but rather a collection, although there are inter-relationships among the poems chosen, with several focusing on spring, the weather, the out-of-doors, and faith.

The melody line seems simply to grow out of the text of the typically quirky poems and the piano line creates atmosphere and lends appropriate dramatic support. An accompanying press release tells us that Margo Jefferson of the The New York Times called Mandel's e.e. cummings songs "ardent and spiky with meter and key changes that felt refreshingly organic." How to say it better? The piano introduction, flowing vocal line and piano support suggesting rainfall or water for the title song is a particularly good example, as is the hymn-like music for "i am a little church." "when faces called flowers" is another memorable one. Each of the remaining twelve is equally natural. There is a sameness to the group, and it is precisely this organic relationship evident in each song: the variety is that provided by the texts themselves, and there is a broad range of subjects covered.

This organic style is perhaps the result of the composer's experience writing songs for plays - dozens of them, such as Molière's Imaginary Invalid , Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood , Beckett's Waiting for Godot , a couple by Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare, among others - performed in NYC and all over the country. She has also scored two films and written for television and dance. (A collection of these is available from the composer on a CD entitled Every Play's an Opera , and they, too, display an amazing variety.) Mandel is also the pianist in her own jazz quintet, and this background is likewise evident in these works. Yet these are true "art songs," not merely songs from musical theater or for a lounge. She seems to be among those composers, like Franz Schubert, Gabriel Fauré, and Ned Rorem, to name but a few of varying nationalities, for whom writing songs just seems to come naturally and whose songs seem to marry the music to the texts seamlessly. Almond's voice is perfect for these works, too, and his theatrical background stands him good stead in his dramatic vocal effects; he knows just how to interpret the songs. The CD simply blew me away at first hearing and continues to do so numerous listenings later!

One disappointment, however, in addition to its brevity, is the accompanying booklet, which has lovely and appropriate photography both outside and inside (as does the tray card), and well-written succinct bios of the poet and the performers. But it does not contain the texts of the poems or even references to the collections from which they were drawn. Six of them can be found in the most popular book of e.e. cummings' works, 100 Selected Poems , continuously in print in paperback for over 40 years, but the other nine are less easy to locate. Perhaps the cummings estate refused reproduction rights, but there is no note to this effect. This does not keep me from recommending that you get yourself a copy of this ASAP if you are at all a fan of great song.

© 2003 Marvin J. Ward, Reprinted from CVNC.org.

                         
 

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