Over the years, few area singers have performed as diligently and as reliably as soprano Penelope Jensen, one of the vocal treasures of our region. She was blessed with a fine natural instrument, she was clearly well-trained, she invariably selects music that suits her voice, and she delivers everything she sings with keen understanding and insight. It used to be said that there were singers and there were artists – and some even inhabited the same frame. In truth, there are many singers with larger and more resplendent voices than Jensen, but there are very few who have so skillfully capitalized on their gifts.
On October 29, Jensen drew to the Nelson Music Room a substantial crowd of admirers of singing for a program with a hook that many students of the vocal art immediately recognized. The program* was titled "From the Twenty-Four and More," the italicized portion referring to G. Shirmer's Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, published in two-sizes-fit-all editions for medium high and medium low voices (and perhaps others, too) in 1894, with periodic copyright renewals ever since. A straw poll of singers and singing students reveals that few of them – few of us... – have not owned and worked from this book. (That doesn't mean we were all thrilled with some of these things when we were first assigned them – some of us wanted to go immediately to big Verdi or Wagnerian roles, without realizing the importance of the slow, methodical development of basic vocal skills that working through the Twenty-Four with a good teacher still provides....) Of course there is some wonderful material in this collection – songs and arias that have been heard in recitals and in home parlors for years and years. Some seem a bit passé and quaint now, and they are no longer performed in public very much. For this reason alone, Jensen's recital was important. But there was much more to it than just a bunch of old songs and arias.
For openers, Jensen, partnered by harpsichordist Thomas Brown (Minister of Music at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill) and Timothy Holley (Assistant Professor of Music at NCCU), sang some early Italian works, some of which were from the book. In such adept hands, there was nothing old or musty or – heaven forfend! – labored about these pieces, which were given stylish interpretations the likes of which few beginners could have imagined. A group of more or less contemporaneous English songs and ballads by two Henrys – Lawes and Purcell – was welcome after the Italian numbers, in part because they fit so nicely into the evening's overall context. Some of these are famous for extra-musical reasons – Lawes' "Angler's Song," for instance, is to a text by that compleat fisherman, Isaak Walton.
After intermission, there were songs with piano accompaniment by Herbert Howells and John Ireland that didn't seem at all out of place, for there's been remarkable consistency in English vocal writing – and several of the texts are ancient.
Brown introduced and then played – handsomely, indeed – Chopin's brilliant Fantaisie in f minor, Op. 49. It didn't seem to have a whole lot to do with the vocal selections, but it's full of singing lines, and the performance certainly demonstrated the artist's superior technique and musicianship, making one want to hear him do lots more.
The grand finale was another early Italian group, but with a twist, as two of the numbers from the opening group – "Amarilli" and "Vergin, tutta'amor" – were repeated, albeit in arrangements by the estimable Pietro Floridia, who – in addition to translating Tristan und Isolde into Italian for Toscanini – took it upon himself to update many old songs and arias for modern folk. A quote in the extensive program booklet – a model of its kind, and increasingly rare today, this 12-page handout included texts, translations, notes, bios, and illustrations – reveals his point of view:
"...[F]ull appreciation of these melodies has been denied... because they have been presented either in their original setting... or ... published in pedantic, heavy arrangements, or still worse, with poor, amateurish, inadequate accompaniments."
The resulting reworkings – recompositions, in some cases – may or may not reflect the composers' intentions. For sure, ol' Floridia (who taught in Cincinnati briefly) might have thought differently about the sources if he'd heard Jensen and Brown perform these things, and with the benefit of hindsight, his editions now seem dated, too. So was it progress? No matter, in this instance, for the Nelson performers did them great honor, and the opportunity to hear early music in late Romantic garb – and especially the two duplicates – was very special, indeed. And besides, some of these editions are precisely what early grammophone artists chose to record – without bothering to credit the arranger! So the recital was, for many, "Old Home Week" in terms of a trip down memory lane – but there was never a breath of overt sentimentality about it. Once more, Jensen and Co. delivered the goods, honestly, directly, and from their collective hearts. The music suited the singer perfectly, and it would be hard to imagine anyone doing it better. Brava and bravo!
*For the record, we'll list here the entire program: "From the Twenty-Four and More": Giulio Caccini (c.1545-1618): Amarilli, & Belle rose porporine; Francesco Durante (1684-1755): Solfeggio; Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725): Su le sponde del Tebro: Dite almeno, & L’Honestà negl’Amor: Già il sole dal Gange; Henry Lawes (1596-1662): Comus: Sweet Echo, The Lark, & The Angler’s Song: Henry Purcell (1659-95): Lord, what is man...?, & An Evening Hymn; Herbert Howells (1892-1983): Come Sing and Dance, King David, & O, my deir hert; John Ireland (1879-1968): Songs Sacred and Profane: The Advent, & Hymn for a Child; Frederic Chopin: (1810-49): Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49; Caccini/Pietro Floridia (1860-1932): Amarilli, & Vergin, tutta’amor; Bernardo Gaffi (c.1665-1744)/Floridia: Luci vezzose; Giuseppe Torelli (1650-1708)/Floridia: Tu lo sai; Antonio Caldara (1670-1736)/Floridia: Selve amiche, ombrose piante; & Francesco Cavalli (1599-1676)/Floridia: Donzelle, fuggite.