For any artist making his or her first solo album is a daunting task. Aside from the technical challenges of going into a studio and repeatedly re-recording tracks that will be spliced together in a manner far different from the spontaneity of live performance, but the repertoire selection can be a point of contention.
It would not be surprising to see a debut album filled with popular repertoire or greatest hits. Taking a risk on the repertoire is not usually a risk we see many opera singers take with their first album.
But for Jamie Barton, this very risk sets her apart.
Instead of taking on classic opera arias with orchestra, the 2015 Richard Tucker Award winner opted for a more intimate musical setting with pianist Brian Zeger. Moreover, instead of stringing together numerous selections, she takes on music from three different composers.
Entitled “All Who Wander,” the album’s selections come from Gustav Mahler, Antonin Dvorak and Jean Sibelius, all contrasting works and yet all so emotionally linked with their introspective atmosphere.
Barton Displays Her Versatility
The choice of placing Mahler’s “Ruckert Lieder” first, is a bold choice, setting a melancholic tone, one of anguish and mystery. It bookends beautifully with the Sibelius pieces at the end of the album, all of them filled with a similar pathos. In between Barton and Zeger present a few Mahler selections, this time from “Lieder und Gesange aus der Jugendzeit” alongside Dvoark’s “Ciganske melodie.” The two middle sets offer up a stark contrast to the outer sets, the music more grounded in many ways and jumping from extremes of joy to deep despair.
What works brilliantly about this recording is that each piece retains a clear individuality, yet they all feel like they belong in the same musical world. Barton’s voice is delicate throughout, a sound that the audiences are not accustomed to hearing in the opera house where her potent mezzo soprano exhilarates with its brilliance and forwardness. Here the voice is more subtle, gliding from one phrase to the next, “wandering” if you will, with such freedom as to carry the listener along. It is highly recommended you procure some translation if you can if only to enjoy the poetic marriage of text and music in all the selections, but those that are in it just for the music will be enraptured by the love and care that Barton gives to every phrase.
Just listen to the opening phrases of “Um Mitternacht,” the fourth track on the album. The shimmer produced from Barton’s voice provides an air of suspense, all the while creating a sense of dread, each consonant given special bitter emphasis. As the piece descends into darker realms, Barton’s voice picks up incredible strength, the anguish pouring out with each crescendo.
Then listen to the shift in timbre during Mahler’s “Ich ging mit Lust,” the sound brighter and more relaxed. Many of Dvorak selections have a dance-like quality and Barton’s rhythm precision gives them wonderful propulsion. Of the Sibelius selections, “Flickan kom” is perhaps the most potent of all, seeing Barton at her most dramatically versatile. From a gentle approach to the opening melody, she allows her voice to springboard into perhaps the most passionate outburst of the album, one that ends so abruptly, yet leaves the listener clamoring for more.
Zeger Matches Barton Beautifully
Zeger is a wonderful collaborator, every bit Barton’s equal in what was clearly a passion project for both participants. His work in the Mahler might be the most memorable in how he sets the stage for Barton, creating atmosphere and tone. In “Um Mitternacht” he follows her beautifully throughout the climax, building the waves of torment around her in a way that adds to the intensity without overpowering or overstating its presence.
The opening to the famous “Songs My Mother Taught Me” in the Dvorak set opens with a glorious piano passage that Zeger imbues with both pain and joy all the same. Despite the clear darkness of the piece, there also seems to be a sense of hope from the “memory’s treasure.”
Barton and Zeger put together an album filled with music gems that will captivate those willing to give it a listen. The intimacy of the set will take them wandering through a vast musical landscape that encapsulates almost any human emotion one can imagine.
That catharsis can only happen when you are willing to take risks.