Chester Biscardi – At the Still Point

Judith Bettina, soprano; James Goldsworthy, piano. (CRI CD 686; 54:00)

The Gift of Life. Traverso. Companion Piece. Incitation to Desire. Mestiere. Tenzone. At the Still Point.

Readers of this column may recall an enthusiastic recent review of a compact disk titled Songs and Encores: Recital of American Song, featuring Judith Bettina and fames Goldsworthy. A colorful array of American song composers was represented in what amounted to tantalizing glimpses of their very best work in highly persuasive performances. One of the highlights of that disk was a haunting song called "Guru" by Chester Biscardi, which surely left listeners hungry to hear more, assuming that this was their initial introduction to this composer and his music.

In fact, Chester Biscardi has been an intriguing and gifted voice in contemporary music for the last several decades, and the compact disk at hand commemorates his career as he reaches the age of sixty. Born and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin (a city which most Americans probably associate with auto plants and bratwurst rather than the nuanced world of the art song), Biscardi has enjoyed a career that has taken him across the globe, yielded him awards such as the Prix de Rome, and eventually brought him to the chairmanship of the music department of Sarah Lawrence College. He is probably best known not only for his art songs, but also for his superbly crafted instrumental chamber music and for piano works that seem to make the piano sing in wonderful new ways.

Biscardi has selected works for this disk that span nearly two decades and several genres. Fans of his vocal music will undoubtedly be disappointed that only one of the seven works gathered here is for voice, but that particular piece is a true masterwork. Moreoever, the rest of this disk otters a fascinating view of how Biscardi's artistic vision has shifted and grown over the years, and the opportunity to hear his musical voice in these various genres should not be missed. Some of the music here is easily accessible (such as a tango titled "Incitation to Desire") while other pieces like the Tenzone for Two Flutes is more daringly modern. Liner notes give helpful and interesting background information on each and every work.

The vocal work is called The Gift of Life, and in fact is a song cycle completed fifteen years ago. [See also the "Music Review" column, pp. 111-112.] The composer explains in the liner notes that he wrote this in the wake of a most satisfying collaboration with Henry Butler for a chamber opera titled Tight-Rope. The pleasure of working with characters and plot forever altered the way Biscardi would approach the task of crafting art songs and powerfully shaped the creation of the song cycle. (Biscardi related in some correspondence that after writing his opera, he found it very difficult to return to the arena of instrumental music, although he eventually did so and has gone on to craft powerful and original instrumental works.)

The song cycle was composed for Bettina and Goldsworthy, who perform it here as they did for the work's premiere in 1993. It begins with an exquisite setting of one of Emily Dickinson's most tender poems, which opens this way:

Mama never forgets her birds,
Though in another tree --
She looks down just as often
And just as tenderly.

Dickinson wrote this in memory of an aunt who had died and likened her departure from this world to a bird flying from one tree to another, yet still looking down on her baby birds with concern and affection. Biscardi's sensitive treatment of this text is breath-takingly beautiful, and it draws us inexorably into the rest of this work and exploration of, in Biscardi's words, "birth, life, memory, loss, death, and finally, love." The middle portion of the work is based on a text from Denise Levertov's Life in the Forest, a woman's thoughtful reflection on her own mother who seems about to slip away from her. This text is less poetic, at least in the conventional sense of the word, which makes it all the more challenging to set to music, but Biscardi responds beautifully with music that gently breathes life into the text without obscuring it. The third and final portion of the text is from Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey and speaks powerfully and persuasively of the finality of death and of our own eventual oblivion, but also of the importance of love as the last and, in fact, only bridge between life and death. Here, as throughout the piece, Biscardi writes with a striking mix of sparseness and warmth, and the text is treated with such loving care. Judith Bettina sings beautifully and Jeff Goldsworthy offers sensitive accompaniment at every turn.

So yet again, we are left tantalized by the songs of Chester Biscardi and hungry to hear more. May our wait be brief. – Gregory Berg, Journal of Singing (2008)

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