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CD Review

Jake Heggie


  • Natural Selection (1997)
  • Creation
  • Animal Passion
  • Alas! Alack!
  • Indian Summer – Blue
  • Joy Alone (Connection)
  • Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999)
  • Ophelia's Song
  • Women Have Loved Before
  • Not in a Silver Casket
  • Spring
  • Eve-Song (1996)
  • My Name
  • Even
  • Good
  • Listen
  • Snake
  • Woe to Man
  • The Wound
  • The Farm
Regina Zona, soprano
Kathleen Tagg, piano
Naxos 8.559764 59m
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Jake Heggie is one of the most successful and admired American composers of his generation. I could go further in my assessment of him: he can be ranked among the most important contemporary composers in the world, at least in opera and song. My first exposure to his music came when I reviewed his opera Moby Dick on EuroArts (Blu-ray 2059654). At the time I wrote that review I investigated some of his songs and wished to hear more of them. Well, my chance has come. Here Naxos issues three song collections of high quality and in first-rate performances.

Stylistically, Heggie is very accessible without sounding hackneyed or imitative in any significant way, and he has a talent for writing distinctive, sometimes catchy melodies. The first collection, Natural Selection (1997), consists of five songs on texts by Gini Savage, that deal with the various stages of a young woman's development, from moving toward independence from her parents and sexual awakening to failure in love and final contentment with herself. The songs range in style but are quite serious even when they are seemingly lighter in mood. Animal Passion (#2) exhibits perky jazzy rhythms and Indian Summer – Blue (#4) divulges a jazzy, sort of bluesy character. I think the best songs in the collection are the first and last, Creation and Joy Alone (Connection), both displaying considerable expressive depth.

Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999) deal with the character Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It consists of four songs, with texts for the last three by Edna St. Vincent Millay and for the first by Heggie himself. Throughout the collection Heggie sees Ophelia as a stronger character than she is often thought to be: he does not view her as a victim and sees her suicide as her way of achieving control and power over existence. Thus, this collection is quite serious in mood and Heggie's music rises to profound levels, from the hypnotic and dark first item, Ophelia's Song, to the powerful last one, Spring. The accompaniment in Spring is brilliantly imagined, with a sparse and often sort of start-and-stop character that, along with the vocal line, matches the stark pessimism of Millay's text.

Eve-Song (1996), written to texts by Philip Littell, deals with the Biblical Eve and features a greater range of moods and styles than either of the other two collections, and presents strong challenges to the singer, both vocally and dramatically. The first of the eight songs in the set, My Name, is, at seven and a half minutes, the longest in any of the collections here. The album notes, authored by Heggie and the two performers, tell us this colorful but dead-serious song "explores lullaby, recitative, arioso, a Kurt Weill parody, and a ballad." Indeed, it's a song that packs a lot of color, emotion and drama into its music, and it is vocally quite demanding. The other songs in the collection continue the tendency to encompass a range of styles and emotions. Good (#3) exhibits a playful, slightly Bernsteinian character, as Eve names the animals in the garden of Eden, while Snake (#4) is jazzy and sassy, the title character charming Eve into taking a bite of the fruit. Woe to Man (#5) brims with tension at the outset but turns into a strutting "music-hall showcase", as Eve brings on the curse to mankind. The Farm, the last song, features gentle, wistful music as an aged Eve reflects on the past.

Soprano Regina Zona turns in splendid performances in all songs. She adapts to the chameleonic character of the songs with seeming ease, never missing a dramatic turn or falling short on a vocal challenge. Indeed, she hits the plentiful high notes with confidence and portrays the characters here with an unerring sense for their emotional state. Kathleen Tagg makes a fine accompanist, skillfully negotiating the considerable melodic and rhythmic complexities in the piano writing, while maintaining a deft sense for dynamics and vocal/piano balance. The sound reproduction is excellent. Some of these songs may have been recorded before, but apparently most are making their first appearance on disc. Naxos notes that this is the "first complete recording of the cycle." For admirers of Jake Heggie and those interested in contemporary song, this disc is a must. Even more tradition-minded listeners will find much here to their liking.

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings