Previn: Four Songs; Two Remembrances; Vocalise; Cello Sonata

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Four Songs; Two Remembrances; Vocalise; Cello Sonata
PERFORMER: Sylvia McNair (soprano), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Andre Previn (piano), Sandra Church (alto flute)
Previn’s Four Songs, using poems by Toni Morrison, continues the US song tradition established by Copland. They may not be strikingly original in style (they owe a debt to 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson), but they are very attractive, idiomatically American and movingly evocative of their texts. The set was written for Sylvia McNair, with a plangent cello obbligato for Yo-Yo Ma. McNair is outstanding here, her voice radiant but warm, soaring but secure. She is a singer for whom every syllable counts, and her performance is utterly absorbing in the way she is able to illuminate words that might seem obscure on the page. From the haunting ‘Mercy’, to the ‘bright and sassy’ (Previn’s marking) ‘Stones’, to the dreamy content of the other set here, Two Remembrances, with their shimmering flute obbligatos, McNair’s performance is perfection.


The rest of the disc contains a diverting Cello Sonata, commissioned and dramatically performed by Ma, and a Vocalise for soprano, cello and piano, that is schmaltzy, bland and reminiscent of Francis Lai’s film soundtracks. (Previn boasts of having written it in an afternoon during the recording sessions; well it sounds like it.) The sound, however, is exceptional: brilliant, vivid and so detailed that Ma’s breathing is audible. Claire Wrathall