all solo voice reviews

“Washington’s National Cathedral might not be the first place one considers as the best to record chamber forces. But Cathedral Music, the 21st Century Consort’s new Albany recording, revels in the space. Soprano Mary Mackenzie’s supple rendition of James Primosch’s Sacred Songs and Meditations sounds clear as crystal. The song cycle collects ancient hymns and refashions them into a beautiful collection of graceful, often chant-inflected, melodies.”

-Christian Carey,

“Why so little Rilke-music?” a critic from The New York Times asked over 20 years ago, noting how many composers have kept a respectful distance from this great poet. Among those who have heeded the challenge of setting his texts is the composer James Primosch, who has turned to Rilke’s religious poetry for a number of songs that elegantly combine personal fervor and worldly sophistication.

On Tuesday at the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall, the New Juilliard Ensemble presented the New York premiere of Mr. Primosch’s “From a Book of Hours,” set to devotional texts Rilke first published in 1905. With one evoking “the calm between two notes” that get along with difficulty, yet “are reconciled, with trembling, in the dark rest,” it’s the sort of poetry that’s aching to be sung.

Alexandra Razskazoff gave a beautiful performance of this captivating work, which benefited as much from her richly faceted, slinky soprano as from the expressive clarity she brought to the German text. Art song requires a singer to lavish as much thoughtfulness and art on diction as on musical phrasing, and Ms. Razskazoff appears to have the makings of a great recitalist.

The ensemble, under the assured direction of Joel Sachs, sounded most comfortable in this work, with its late-Romantic language laced with idiosyncratic colorings.

– Corinna da Fonsecca-Wollheim, New York Times, November 18, 2015

“And what of now, and in America? In the time of Lady Gaga, techno, metal, etc., sacred music, or music aiming for a sacred space — and not a new-age sacred space-is not a burgeoning field. One who is in it, and doing very fine work, is James Primosch. This is nowhere so clear as in his recent disc, appropriately titled Sacred Songs.

The four works presented are on sacred and high literary texts, including Rilke, St. Bernard, Prudentius, Psalms, and Stewart for a start-sung wonderfully by William Sharp and Susan Narucki-in English, Latin, and German. Like the languages used, the music is eclectic, as there are many influences: plainchant, expressionism and folk songs are a few. Yet this is an integrated eclecticism, where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and all is formed into a widely (this is important) expressive language, one that has a basis in tonal relationships, but that can be abundantly clear or mysterious. It is hard for some composers to know when to stop or be quiet, but Primosch gauges that well in these works. The pacing is elegant, movements are never too long or over stay their material, and the balancing of movements is delicate and done with assurance. The music, unlike the Holy Minimalists, doesn’t strive always to be in a holy space, but instead to describe it and give it a human response. In this way Primosch is able to take us to, be in the presence of, and then take us out of, sacred time and space, an attribute which is at the center of the Western musical art form. For example, Dark the Star, on beguiling texts by Susan Stewart, is a bit of an askew palindrome, and at 22 minutes passes swiftly but with the sense of a journey taken that is of note and meaning, finding sacred space and then retreating from it. The other works are similarly well judged in their pacing and emotive reach.

Christopher Kendall’s 20th Century Consort brings out the glistening textures and rapid fire alterations of orchestration. This is a modified Pierrot Lunaire orchestration (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, voice), and Primosch does wonders with it. At times savagely thick, at others wispy, delicate, almost desiccated, it is always in the service, and supportive, of the texts.

John Harbison, whose cantata The Flight Into Egypt is an earlier and wonderful sacred work, wrote the liner notes, which are movingly informative and insightful. “The music sounds like it intends to be remembered. Motives are felt, rather than just being useful. Quiet static moments are driven home, not just waiting for something to happen.” He is right. As Hillel might have said, the rest is commentary, now go listen.

–Daniel Asia, Huffington Post, August 26, 2015

“In addition to Mr. Wuorinen’s piece, there were liturgical elements to other works I heard while in attendance from Thursday to Saturday (the festival ended on Sunday), including James Primosch’s gorgeous “Dark the Star.” Set to texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, Susan Stewart and the Book of Psalms and sung with dramatic nuance by the baritone Dimitri Katotakis and the bass-baritone Davone Tines, it featured a brooding opening section, soaring and expressive vocal lines and creatively scored, beautiful instrumental writing.”

-Vivien Schweizer, New York Times, July 27, 2015

“James Primosch’s album of vocal works based on religious-themed texts reveals an impressively broad range of approaches to creating sacred music for the twenty-first century. Regardless of style, however, Primrosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama, whether the mood is one of wonder, joy, frustration, reverence, bleakness, or some combination thereof.

The Rilke poems in the first cycle, From a Book of Hours, are searching and inquisitive, trying to comprehend and illuminate the poet’s personal relationship to God. Primosch’s musical language for setting these German verses is appropriately wide-ranging, sophisticated, and often unsettling: In “Lösch, mir die Augen aus,” Primosch matches the grisly imagery of the poem (“Put out my eyes, and I can see you still;”) with driving, violent thrashings. By contrast, the next song begins with a Tchaikovsky-like horn solo. Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation that guides us easily through some of the denser thickets… Even at his “simplest,” Primosch is surprising on the level detail contained in his writing. “Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross. Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.

Another standout is “Deathbeds,” the last song of the last cycle (Holy the Firm). Primosch transforms Annie Dillard’s poem into something unsparingly grim, even slightly unhinged. Narucki manages to to preserve vocal beauty while giving full dramatic authenticity to Dillard’s schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness from the moments right before death. These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple. Even listeners with conservative musical tastes will find much to enjoy here. Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment. ”

– Joshua Rosenblum,  Opera News, September, 2014


“James Primosch’s treatment of the Susan Scott Thompson poem Waltzing the Spheres had a kind of harmonic ambiguity that seemed to let the poems [poem] run exactly where they [it] wanted to.”

-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 2014

“Cinder [from Holy the Firm] of Primosch masterfully balanced opposites. His orchestral canvasses are songs; it is only right that Cinder, well, it is a symphony.”

-Kile Smith, blog post, October 16, 2012

“Primosch contributed his 2007 Ariel Songs with the Shakespeare words set in a clear, almost conversational way, but with all sorts of fun stuff going on in the instrumentation, suggesting an earthiness that’s not quite of this Earth.”

-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 2012

“If there’s anything out there like Primosch’s Songs for Adam, I haven’t heard it – though the music wears its singularity lightly, with no need to express itself radically. It has a confidence of expression that comes of Primosch’s having written a steady stream of song cycles since the late 1990s. Composers are still drawing legitimate inspiration from poets of the increasingly distant past, such as Walt Whitman, but Primosch pushes both himself and thus his listeners onto new ground with Susan Stewart’s verse, which are called songs in their printed version because they suggest music, especially in the first poem, in which Adam is stuttering his way into existence.

Both poet and composer share an ability to contemplate how basic elements of existence might feel for the first time, and the duo know how to capture that in their respectively cultivated vocabularies, with an emotional rightness that never becomes too analytical.

In fact, Primosch enters the Korngold zone when describing Adam’s intoxication with the word. Though words are set dramatically and in ways that are well written for the voice, the best moments are in the masterly orchestration, which gives an extra percussive spark to moments of discovery and unflinchingly confronts the agony of Adam’s expulsion from Eden.

The pale strings capture his disappointment in the real world in an overall dramatic arc that’s almost epic, going from the unimaginable (the beauty of Eden) to the unthinkable (the world’s first children, Abel and Cain, and the world’s first fratricide).”

-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2010

“The Chicago Symphony performed Primosch’s From a Book of Hours in 2002, and that setting of Rainer Maria Rilke poems motivated the orchestra’s administration to sign up the American composer for another commission. This time Primosch chose a living poet, Susan Stewart, who penned six settings for the cycle. Her words are simple, but varied in expression, at times impressionistic, evolving from child-like simplicity to romantic yearning, wry irony, and despair.

Songs for Adam is scored for solo baritone and large orchestra with Brobdingnagian percussion (including vibraphone, crotales, bell-tree, temple blocks, two tam-tams, etc.). Yet Primosch releases the full fury of his vast forces only in a few places, and much of the scoring is strikingly luminous and transparent.

The first song depicts Adam’s stammer as he learns to “open his mouth to sing.” Ensuing sections reflect his naming of objects in the world, and his discovery and longing for Eve. The fourth setting is more dramatic, painting the expulsion from the garden. A melancholy exile follows, and the cycle concludes with a lamentation on Abel’s murder also noting the violence that continues down through the centuries.

Primosch has a real gift for vocal writing, and his predominantly tonal style skillfully reflects the texts, with a striking variety of expression in this 30-minute work. In addition to Davis’s superb direction and the first-rate playing of the CSO, much of the success for this premiere is due to the sterling advocacy of Brian Mulligan. The young baritone possesses a burnished, evenly produced instrument and his sensitive singing and exemplary diction made the greatest possible case for Primosch’s cycle. Mulligan brought impassioned fervor to the names, a sense of romantic yearning to the fourth setting and just the right sense of desolate expression with a ray of hope to the coda.

This was not quite the world premiere of Songs for Adam, since four of the six songs were “previewed” by the Civic Orchestra in March (isn’t that the same as “performed”?). The scale of the orchestration may mitigate against future performances in this cost-conscious era, but Primosch’s Songs for Adam is a rich-textured, moving and effective song-cycle that deserves to be heard. The audience clearly enjoyed the new work as well, enthusiastically applauding the composer and poet along with the musicians.

-Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review – October 30, 2009

” …there was the world premiere of James Primosch’s intriguing and beautiful new song cycle, “Songs for Adam,” to lift the evening beyond the ordinary.

It’s unusual for an orchestra to commission both the music and poetry for a vocal work, but that’s what the CSO did when it invited Primosch, a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, and Susan Stewart, a prize-winning poet and English professor at Princeton, to create a sequel to Primosch’s 2002 song cycle, “From a Book of Hours,” which the CSO also commissioned and premiered.

The six poems follow the biblical story of Adam, from his first stammering words to the creation of Eve to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden to a meditation on the death of Abel. Stewart’s poetic imagery — simple yet elusive, given to repetition and internal rhymes — melds comfortably with Primosch’s lyrical, essentially tonal harmonic grammar. The vocal writing for baritone ranges from introspective musings to angry declamation, bestriding a large orchestra that is used with acute subtlety, sensitivity and evocative instrumental color, never covering the singer.

I cannot imagine a more compelling interpreter than Brian Mulligan, a young American baritone who has sung with the Metropolitan and San Francisco operas. He brought a burnished, pliant sound and gripping expressive penetration to the cycle. Especially memorable was the poignant regret of the final song, violins dying away softly, leaving the last notes to the singer. Davis and the orchestra surrounded the vocal part with telling atmospheric detail. Primosch and Stewart were present to share in the audience’s warm reception.”

-John Van Rhein, Chicago Tribune, October 31, 2009

“The real weight of the concert, though, came in two contrasting works: James Primosch’s brooding Dark the Star and Bruce MacCombie’s Color and Time. Built around poems by Susan Stewart and Rainer Maria Rilke, Dark the Star is a low-voiced journey through shadows, suffused with night and death, and received a suitably uncompromising performance from baritone William Sharp.”

-Stephen Brookes, Washington Post, April 8, 2008

“Cleveland-born composer James Primosch drew texts from the writings of three 20th-century American women and a seventh-century Sinai desert monk for his luminous songs, Holy the Firm. The poetic words are sensitively matched to music that evokes images of fire, Jacob’s ladder, an everyday god and deathbed sensations. The vocalist frequently sings in a high range, and the piano part, too, reaches toward the heavens. Soprano Tony Arnold drew listeners into the score’s rapturous atmosphere with singing of tonal beauty and dramatic truth. Pianist Jacob Greenberg played his collaborative role with clarity.”

-Wilma Salisbury, Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 22, 2005

“…a composer whose music deserves wider exposure…Primosch reveals both his sensitivity to the texts and to orchestral color as a means of extending and enhancing the dramatic possibilities of the human voice… scoring, rich in atmosphere…Even so, the orchestra is so carefully deployed that the solo vocal part is never obscured.” [on From a Book of Hours]

-John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, January 11 , 2002

“Rilke’s poems have a distinctly modern sensibility that was beautifully reflected in Primosch’s austere but profoundly thoughtful settings.” [on From a Book of Hours]

           -Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 2002

“The second half of the program was a beautiful performance of Sacred Songs and Meditations by Primosch, a reverent but vivid treatment of ancient Latin texts, alternating simple plainchant with elaborate instrumental interludes.”

– Joseph McLellan, Washington Post, January 15, 2000

“She [Dawn Upshaw] began the second half with songs by six living composers who either have written on commission from her or tickled her artistic fancy. They are composers worthy of the attention, especially James Primosch (whose Cinder is a haunting essay about destiny based on a poem by Susan Stewart)…”

– Donald Rosenberg, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 7, 1999

“The two brand-new works, both commissioned for her [Dawn Upshaw], were particularly exhilarating. The more substantial was the five-song cycle Holy the Firm by the Pennsylvania-based James Primrosch [sic] (born in 1956). The title and two of the texts are taken from the writer Annie Dillard; the other sections are by poets Denise Levertov and Susan Stewart, as well as a seventh-century Sinai monk. Cumulatively they evoke the mysteries of existence and faith, concluding with a long sequence, “Deathbeds”, which begins with harrowing bewilderment and anxiety but then resolves itself — as does the cycle as a whole — in transcendent, rapt acceptance. Dawn Upshaw’s searing performance was a journey that felt tactile both physically and spiritually.”

– Urjo Kareda, Toronto Globe and Mail, April 21, 1999

“The juxtaposition of Holy the Firm and the Messiaen – both concerning various aspects of spiritual ecstasy – made for absorbing listening. Primrosch’s [sic] brief cycle gathers verse by three women – Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard and Susan Stewart – and the seventh century monk, John Climacus. The settings are expansive, with lots of busy figurations in the piano, yet the words remain paramount. Upshaw rendered it with a glowing integrity.”

– Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner, April 12, 1999

“James Primosch’s Four Sacred Songs, performed locally for the first time, used plainsong and ancient church sources for the vocal line and built contemporary sonorities and rhythmic events around them…

“In Primosch’s Four Sacred Songs, the power of chant reasserted itself. Soprano Jody Kidwell sang the four texts with attention to the clarity of the intervals that made them sound fresh to modern ears. The songs were brightly colored by the ensemble of harp, percussion, flute, clarinet, cello, and violin. The second, “Corde Natus ex Parentis”, was written in an antique canon form in which the melody moved at different tempos within the instruments while the song itself moved expressively to provide the basis for the other lines.

“The final song, “O Filii et Filiae,” added a celebratory air to the serious songs, surrounding the voice with big bell-like chimes.”

-Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 1993

“James Primosch’s 1987 chamber work, The Cloud of Unknowing for soprano and 20-piece orchestra, received its Chicago premiere. An astonishing piece, not only because its composer was only 31 when he wrote it, The Cloud dares to be a religious work in our excessively secular age.

“A 30-minute Lenten meditation on five poems by Hopkins, Donne, Merton and others, the work follows Varese in creating unique and beautiful sound pictures for each poem.”

-Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times, March 2, 1993

“Words and music have a lot to say to each other in James Primosch’s Weil Alles Unsagbar Ist (Because Everything is Unsayable), played Sunday afternoon by the New York Camerata at the Van Pelt Auditorium of the Philadelphia Musuem of Art.

The three movement work for flute, violin, soprano, cello and piano is stunning in its ability to illuminate texts taken from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Pictures and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

“Primosch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a master of text painting that can be subtle or obvious. Listening to the music while following the German words (a translation was provided in the program) was a fascinating exercise in finding examples of both kinds.

“Pianist Meg Bachman Vas leaned into the piano in “Klage” (Lament) to dampen the string of a hit note, making a sound remarkably like a striking clock where soprano Eleanor Clark sang Uhr, the German word for clock. Stars mentioned in the text were evoked by the piano’s pointillistic gestures in the upper register.

The music builds to an Angst-ridden pitch, which both ends the first movement and sets the mood for the second, “Angste” (Fears).

“Here, Rilke’s nightmares run loose. After praying to rediscover his childhood, he seems surprised that it returns with what he recalls as all its attendant fears.

“The fact that his fears are irrational makes their impact no less felt. Rilke and Primosch collaborate to make us fear that a “small woolen thread sticking out of the hem of my blanket may be hard, hard and sharp as a steel needle,” that “some number may begin to grow in my brain until there is no more room for it inside me.” The greatest fear may be the one expressed at the end, that “growing older has served no purpose at all.”

“‘Herbst’ (Autumn) uses a descending two-note idea to represent falling leaves.”

-Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 15, 1992

“James Primosch’s Three Sacred Songs for soprano and piano are tonal and ardent. And their Latin texts are distinguished by a variety of musical language: the first has a near-Victorian romanticism, the second an austere modality, the last song brings to mind a joyous medieval dance.”

-Lesley Valdes, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1992

“Drawing on Latin texts and using in each case a traditional setting of the hymn or chant, Mr. Primosch has framed these liturgical pieces – or better said, enfolded them – in his own sparse musical style.

“Though the predominating feeling is modal, as might be expected given the source of the materials, there are also far-Eastern, mystical sounds that tingled and bristled. The score is very approachable, handsomely made and austerely beautiful.” [on Four Sacred Songs]

-John Ardoin, Dallas Morning News, November 6, 1991

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