John Harbison's longstanding fascination with the poetry of Eugenio Montale has inspired him to write a considerable amount of music based on the Italian Nobel Prize winner's work, and this album gathers his most significant Montale pieces. Motetti di Montale is a 50-minute, 20-movement song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano or chamber ensemble. Harbison wisely divides the work into four discrete books, or libri, which can be performed independently. (He has also designated books three and four as a separate work named Due Libri.) The songs cover a broad range of affects, to which Harbison is fully responsive, but the uniformity of his style here makes the songs more effective as four short cycles than as one large piece to be digested as a single experience. While these songs are not the most melodically memorable, Harbison has a real gift for showing off the voice, and the gratifying vocal writing allows the soloist the opportunity to shine. The songs may not be notable for their lyricism, but Harbison creates a coherent, meaningful, distinctive, and often intriguing musical structure for each one; every song has a clearly dramatic and emotional core.
Janice Felty has recorded the first two books before, in their arrangement for chamber ensemble, but this is her first version singing the entire cycle, and the first version of the complete cycle with piano accompaniment on disc. The contemporary repertoire is one of the many in which Felty excels, and she sings with tenderness and ferocious intensity, fully embodying the range of the poet's passion; this is a fully invested performance. Her voice is exceptionally warm and rich, particularly in her lower register, and she has a ringing top; this could be considered one of her finest recorded performances. Pianist Judith Gordon accompanies her with passion and intensity, and ably performs Three Montale Sketches for solo piano.