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Letters to The World comprises settings for Soprano, Recorder, Harpsichord and Cello of eleven poems of Emily Dickinson. It is a curious fact that this poet caught almost no-one's ear for the first century of her life, but now she seems to speak to and for us all. The texts are not easy, however: eliptical, mysterious, seemingly naïve but actually far from it, and always very first-personal -'letters' in effect. A lot of modern composers have set about putting groups of these extraordinary poems to music by now, with varying degrees of success. Against the grain of the poet's tiny, private voice, John Adams scored a sonorous success with his setting of Wild Nights in his Harmonium -- perhaps the most powerfully erotic music of the entire later 20th century, an era when we almost prided ourselves upon sensual expressiveness but so rarely actually achieved it. Nicholson seeks out the strangeness, mystery and -- most mysterious of all -- the matter-of-factness of Dickinson's anything-but-material vision. I wish the vocal part were occasionally less forward, less demonstrative, more shy, but, having said that, I think Nicholson has captured the essence of this most compelling poetry like nobody else. He complements local imagery -- bees buzzing; warm, thick clover; the caution of a would-be suicide 'groping up to see if God was there'; and so on -- but above and beyond that he writes music for the sense which lies between, as well as in, the lines of the poems [listen -- track 17, 0:00-0:58]. The ensemble of instruments -- unpromising on paper, perhaps -- seems absolutely right in his hands. The whole over-arching metaphor of music/poetry as a 'letter to the world' (wittily conveyed on the sleeve cover too) has elicited a cycle of extra-ordinarily intelligent, sensuous songs which have a resonance far beyond the composer's faithfulness to the texts' conversational intimacy.

This disc, running to almost eighty minutes of music, deserves more than merely passing attention.

Copyright © 10 February 2002 Peter Dale, Danbury, Essex, UK







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