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The Absolute Sound, April 2011

Wayne Garcia reviewed Wheeler’s opera The Construction of Boston, noting its remarkable beauty and originality. I’d never heard Wheeler’s music before, but I’m very impressed; his songs are uncluttered, accessible, and witty or dramatic as needed, with notably inventive and pleasing piano accompaniments. The poems are by Mark van Doren, William Blake, Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, and others—good choices all. Wheeler says, “To me, songs are simply the most sensuous kind of fun one can have with the combination of words and music,” and this disc is an excellent display of his work, a playground of fantasy, laughter, violence, humility, divinity, and the logical extremes of sappy love poetry. The singers—Susanna Phillips, Krista River, Joseph Kaiser, William Sharp—display consistent intelligence and musicality, as well as admirably clear enunciation (a good thing, since Naxos doesn’t include printed texts of the poems). Donald Bergman is a perfectly unflappable pianist, never overstating anything, a master of the art of accompanying. The sound is vivid and dynamic, though there’s an occasional fuzziness to some fricatives and sibilants. © 2011 The Absolute Sound

Robert Carl
Fanfare, March 2011

Scott Wheeler (b.1952) has established a firm reputation as one of the leading composers of his generation for the lyric stage. I reviewed his chamber opera The Construction of Boston in Fanfare 32:4, and loved its play of deft musical wit. This disc features a recital of the composer’s songs, both individual and in cycles, and it covers a range from 1984 to 2007. One pleasure is that while Wheeler never literally repeats himself, he’s clearly been his own mature creative persona from the get-go, and there’s remarkable pleasure and consistency throughout the program.

I think it would be wearying to do detailed exegesis, so instead, let me comment on what I feel are a few of Wheeler’s salient strengths, even if as a result I don’t mention every piece.

Wheeler studied with Virgil Thomson, and that master’s influence is evident in his student’s lightness of touch, and above all, the clear setting of texts. Naxos doesn’t provide a libretto (nor does it list a Web site to find it, which has been the procedure in the past) [available online], but for once I won’t grouse, because the combination of Wheeler’s art with the remarkable diction of all his singers makes such superfluous (though I have to give special credit to William Sharp, whose English enunciation projects at a level of comprehensibility I’ve rarely encountered). When you hear a Wheeler song, you hear the words and music in a balanced duet throughout.

The composer also has a distinct lightness of touch. When I say “light,” I don’t mean “lite.” There is the clarity and brilliance that we associate with the word as a noun. Another way of saying this is to say the music has “grace.” And there once again multiple meanings suggest themselves: not only elegance, but the sort of unexpected gift one receives from higher realms. Wheeler writes in his notes that he has always been drawn to the Great American Songbook as a point of reference, and these songs show that he can combine a directness and accessibility we associate with Broadway, with the seriousness of purpose and depth of feeling more closely allied to art song. The conclusion of his 1993 Mark Van Doren cycle Serenata, “Love Me a Little,” has a breeziness that I associate with Sondheim. Likewise his Dickinson setting “Keeping the Sabbath” from the 1999 Sunday Songs is joyfully effervescent. His setting of Blake’s “The Little Vagabond” from the 2007 Heaven and Earth asserts the good-hearted drunken humor of its protagonist with an insistent little lick that speaks volumes…without speaking volumes.

This also suggests that Wheeler knows when to interpret and when to get out of the way. His Billy Collins song Litany (2006) takes a frankly hilarious text (that pushes lovesong metaphor to its logical absurdity) and lets the laughter emerge from the deadpan way the music frames the poem. And yes, he can be serious. The conclusion of his cycle Turning Back (2007) embodies the voice of Eurydice, who’s frankly disgusted with Orpheus for looking back, and actually takes this potentially comic take and turns it instead into a truly dramatic scena.

Wheeler’s piano writing is ingenious; many times he creates an accompaniment by piecing together a mosaic of tight little rhythmic motives that self-assemble into a burblingly supportive piano part. His language is largely tonal but never derivative. The sound is utterly American, precise, mercurial, economic.

The performances by all are outstanding, and I can only imagine the composer is thrilled. Wheeler has been making a serious name for himself in American opera, and his stage experience (how to “deliver” a song) is evident here. I look forward to many future decades of his art.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, March 2011

Scott Wheeler (b. 1952) studied song writing with Virgil Thomson at his Chelsea Hotel apartment in New York City. This collection documents Wheeler’s songs from 1984 to 2007. He currently teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

Wheeler writes in a flexible tonal style, with superbly grateful vocal writing intimately attuned to his texts (he has excellent literary taste). Unfortunately, Naxos doesn’t print those texts…The diction of these fine singers couldn’t be better, but sung language requires knowledge of text, at least when poetry is involved. Sure, the CD is cheap, but Naxos does no one any favors with incomplete projects like this. Of course, if you don’t care about the relation between word and music, the songs are still terrific as far as they go.

What follows is a brief summary of the contents with a few of my favorites, but that is not meant to imply the inferiority of any of the other songs. These are among the best songs in English I’ve heard recently; I cannot recommend them highly enough—and they are beautifully performed here. Serenata (1993) is five charming but profound love poems by Mark Van Doren, tonal and tuneful, sensitively put forth by baritone William Sharp. The opener, ‘If I Had a Wife’, is a gem. Sunday Songs (1999) are two poems by Emily Dickinson written for Renèe Fleming, sung here with virtuosity by soprano Susanna Phillips. Heaven and Earth (2007) is four poems by William Blake for tenor. Singing to Sleep (1984) is from a set of three lullabies, two of which (by Rilke, in English, and Auden) are included here, sung by mezzo Krista River. These are sublime songs (especially the Auden), touching and memorable. Litany (2006) is a humorous little waltz for baritone on a text by Billy Collins deconstructing the complimenting of women. I loved it. Wasting the Night (1990), the title of the release, is a brief but very effective cycle of relationship poems by Edna St Vincent Millay (the last poem, ‘Betrothal’, is a killer). Soprano Phillips is perfect. Wallace Stevens’s Mozart, 1935 (1997), for baritone, is a melancholy remembrance of Mozart in the dark days leading up to World War II. The program closes with Turning Back (2007), on 4 poems by “H.D.” (Hilda Doolittle), sung by Ms River, who commissioned them.

Lack of texts notwithstanding, this is a very impressive release that should delight lovers of the art song in English. Mr Wheeler, now writing his third opera, the second one having been written for Domingo, is showing himself to be a major contributor to the contemporary vocal repertoire. This is highly recommendable once Naxos completes the production, and recommendable even if it doesn’t.

Judith Malafronte
Opera News, March 2011

A recent addition to the Naxos label’s American Classics song series is a disc featuring the works of Scott Wheeler. Single songs as well as cycles spanning the years 1984 to 2007 are potently voiced by William Sharp, Susanna Phillips, Joseph Kaiser and Krista River, accompanied by the excellent pianist Donald Berman

Wheeler’s economical, attractive compositional style is a result of his early fascination with jazz and the Great American Songbook, as well as a course of study with Virgil Thomson, who insisted on naturalness and clarity of text-setting. The four singers featured here handle the words—in both their English and American flavors—with varying degrees of success. Baritone William Sharp sets the bar high in his opening set, the 1993 song cycle Serenata. Mark Van Doren’s poems have a spare, almost brittle quality, yet Wheeler’s settings enable Sharp to flesh out masterful, imaginative characterizations. Initially pompous, the narrator of “If I Had a Wife” moves through wistful longing to a final shrug. (Wheeler’s songs often end abruptly in irony or quizzical incertitude.) Sharp expresses the painful sensuality of “Her Hand in My Hand” and “Desire Like This,” and his natural, everyday pronunciation (especially in the Sondheim-esque “Love Me Little”) brings immediacy to every line. Sharp also makes the most of the single songs “Litany,” a setting of Billy Collins’s hilarious parody poem (flying off from “You are the bread and the knife/ the crystal goblet and the wine” into metaphoric ridiculousness) and Wallace Stevens’s “Mozart, 1935,” a multi-layered work in which Mozart and Kurt Weill collide.

Like Sharp, soprano Susanna Phillips couples gorgeous vocalism with richly imaginative interpretations. Sunday Songs, setting poems by Emily Dickinson, include “Oriole” (Messiaen’s influence is felt in the birdsong from both piano and voice) and “Keeping the Sabbath,” in which vocal scat and gleeful twittering enhance the poem’s irreverent feel. Phillips is also the right singer for the sophisticated cycle Wasting the Night, treating poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay; the lazy sensuality of “Recuerdo” and the folksong-influenced “Betrothal” are especially appealing.

Mezzo-soprano Krista River’s diction is not so pristine as that of her colleagues, especially in the spare, beautiful “To Say to Go to Sleep” and “Lullaby.” Listeners will want to read the poems, which are not available in Naxos’s online supplement but easy enough to find elsewhere on the Web. River’s voice has a lovely, soprano-ish clarity and golden color, heard to better effect in the cycle Turning Back (which she sang at its premiere in 2007), setting four poems by H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). Modern reimaginings of classical female figures include a questioning Sappho, a cynical Circe, a potent Lethe (in another lullaby) and an irate Eurydice, who questions the motives of her rescuer Orpheus.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser is a less compelling and imaginative storyteller, but he handles the Britten-esque cycle Heaven and Earth handsomely.

Laurence Vittes
Gramophone, March 2011

Thoroughly modern yet heart warming songs expressively and beautifully sung

The music of Scott Wheeler is rich in just those qualities which we admire in ourselves and adore in others. It is warm, earnestly and ardently tonal, with an elusive lyrical quality that makes it classical music for sure. It has the power to be sinister, as in two Emily Dickinson songs, or to rage as in four Blake songs which seethe with raw appetite.

Wheeler’s range is wide: “Litany” is a sweet love song, or the flowering of first love, the detail overlaid on a hymnal-like passacaglia-like foundation. “Mozart, 1935”, to a poem by Wallace Stevens, is a priceless gem, a young man’s paean to his own passing youth. In the four songs of Turning Back, Krista River catches the poetry of HD (Hilda Doolittle) in the full flight of its emotional ecstasy.

The title track is 12 minutes of continuous emotional sharing through five Edna St Vincent Milay poems rent with “yearning and cynicism”, set to music that kneads Wheeler’s all-American musical heritage, starting with the great American songbook, into his repertoire of intimate musical textures and fabrics. Impressively, despite all the echoes and reminiscences of other composers and musics that seem to catch his ear, there is not one bar that is not uniquely his.

With pianist Donald Berman and crew giving fully of themselves, there is never a doubt that this music is the real thing, genuine in feeling and personal in its singing. Each of the singers bends completely with the music and still makes it their heart, rich with love, pain and care. The sound is close up and luxurious, pleasantly hinting at claustrophobia in its audiophile effect.

MusicWeb International, February 2011

According to Scott Wheeler, his song-writing was inspired by Cole Porter and rock and pop music of the 1960s and 1970s—but that should not discourage the inquisitive music fan from considering this CD. Naxos may be stretching meanings a little to release it in their American Classics range, especially given that three of the eight items are less than five years old, but there is much of quality here.

Wheeler was taught song-setting privately by Virgil Thomson, whose method Wheeler describes in the notes as “focusing on vocal range, groupings of syllables, and placement of vowels.” The benefits of Thomson’s wisdom are highly apparent throughout this disc: apart from Litany, Wheeler’s music is imaginative, varied, pungent, lyrical; yet communication remains paramount and as a testimony to the not-always-deserving poetry, every word can be clearly understood.

Clarity is enhanced by two further factors: firstly, the recording is high-quality and well-balanced. Secondly, Donald Berman is the constant pianist. He is immensely experienced in this kind of repertoire, and is undaunted by the difficulty of much of the music.

Soprano Susanna Phillips has a clear, attractive voice and great interpretive ability. She is outstanding in both sets she performs. The first of these are the two Sunday Songs, both settings of Emily Dickinson. Phillips also performs Wasting the Night, five poignant poems about love and time by Edna St Vincent Millay. This is some of the best poetry on the disc.

Singing To Sleep is a group of three lullabies, of which only two are included on the CD. These are fine songs, beautifully sung by mezzo Krista River. But why on earth only two? The third song could surely have been squeezed on—if it was particularly lengthy, then it could have taken the place of the aptly-named Litany, which feels quite a lot longer than its three and a half minutes, with its repetitive, uninspiring piano accompaniment to Billy Collins’s dire humour, along the lines of Sondheim meets Flanders & Swann, and unendearingly delivered by baritone William Sharp.

Sharp also sings Mozart 1935, Wheeler’s setting of a rather arch poem by Wallace Stevens. Sharp is an acquired taste; as technically good as his voice is, whatever he sings he tends to sound like he is performing Sondheim. So it was with Litany, and so it is also with this song, although in his notes Wheeler indicates that he meant to suggest Kurt Weill. It’s Hollywood, either way. The largest dose of Sharp comes with Serenata. which opens the disc. This is both longer and a little more interesting than Mozart, certainly as far as the music goes. The poems are by Mark Van Doren, and may be a little too pretentious for many palates.

Joseph Kaiser has a much more expressive voice. He sings Heaven and Earth, a cycle of four settings of William Blake, to great effect. And Wheeler’s music captures the strangeness of Blake’s ideas.

The CD ends with Turning Back, four poems by Hilda Doolittle. Wheeler dedicated these to Krista River, who premièred them and performs them here. Her voice is quite similar to Susanna Phillips’s, which is a compliment. Musically, this cycle is another highlight of the disc, and it is a pity that the texts are “not available” for these particular songs—presumably for copyright reasons.

Michael Quinn
The Classical Review, January 2011

Scott Wheeler’s second disc on Naxos arrives nearly three years after the label released his first opera, The Construction of Boston, and a full seven years after the only other recording of his music—Shadow Bands, a collection of pieces for strings and piano on Newport Classic—to confirm the Washington, DC-born composer’s sweetly expressive, intelligently sympathetic, and adroitly nimble facility for setting texts.

Wasting the Night is a compendium of 24 piano-accompanied songs composed between 1984 and 2007 and collected into eight pieces. It takes its title from a 1990 cycle setting five texts by the poet and playwright Edna St Vincent Millay that insightfully muse upon the capacity to “waste the night in wanting”. Originally presented in concert as cabaret songs (largely in the American manner of Blossom Dearie and Mabel Mercer), here, in poised performances by soprano Susanna Phillips, they describe the brittleness of yearning buffeted by world-weary cynicism with a becoming economy of gesture and telling sense of empathy.

Phillips is equally at home in Sunday Songs, two gently agitated settings of Emily Dickinson composed in 2006 for Renée Fleming. With more ethereal concerns in mind, their engagement with the chiaroscuro contrasts of the divine and the commonplace find haunting echo in the following year’s Heaven and Earth. Here, five poems by William Blake, evocatively delivered by tenor Joseph Kaiser, collide the imagined tenderness of Heaven with the brute violence of the world as lived, Wheeler’s piano line providing a scathingly sour commentary on the faux bravura of ‘The Little Vagabond’, haunting the poverty of ‘Holy Thursday’, and pointedly punctuating Blake’s Old Testament fervor in ‘Oh, For a Voice Like Thunder’.

The three pieces for baritone offer the most uncomplicatedly pleasurable experiences on the disc. Litany is a textbook-perfect display of deadpan humor, Billy Cotton’s deliciously straight-faced poem treated with finger-tip delicacy by Wheeler and tongue-in-cheek resourcefulness by William Sharp.

Sharp is no less enticing in what Wheeler describes as the “lover’s serenade” of Serenata. A 1993 setting of five poems by Mark Van Doren, it boasts exquisitely redolent instrumental accompaniment and fancy-free poetry in vocal lines that approvingly call to mind Oscar Hammerstein II’s winning way with the vernacular.

By contrast, 1997’s Wallace Stevens-setting, Mozart, 1935, evokes a markedly different cabaret context: 1930s’ Berlin. Quoting Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor (No. 3, K. 397) and the second movement of the A major Piano Concerto (No. 23, K. 488) it also bears the obvious imprint of Kurt Weill and benefits from the poignant undercurrents in Sharp’s fervent delivery.

Wheeler displays both deft sensitivity and absorbing acuity in Turning Back—four poems by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) that cast a sharp contemporary light on figures drawn from classical literature—and an enchanting, filigree-delicate touch and tone in two lullabies from Singing to Sleep; all of which mezzo Krista River dispatches with consummate ease and eloquence.

Accompanying at the piano throughout is Donald Berman in one marvelously subtle performance after another, gracefully reciprocating the contrasting styles of the four singers while responding to the emotional ebb and flow of the material with perfectly pitched nuance and knowingness.

The composer provides his own notes for the booklet. Texts are not provided, but can be downloaded from the Naxos website., December 2010

The songs of Scott Wheeler (born 1952) have a very different sensibility but are equally moving in their own way. The new Wheeler CD is one of five fine recent releases in the Naxos “American Classics” series, any one of which would make a much-appreciated gift for lovers of modern American music. Wheeler’s songs convey a wide range of expression, often spiritual and nearly always thoughtful. This well-performed CD includes Serenata (1993), Sunday Songs (1999), Heaven and Earth (2007), excerpts from Singing to Sleep (1984), Litany (2006), Wasting the Night (1990), Mozart, 1935 (1997) and Turning Back (2007).

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group