THIS IS A SOLO ALBUM of the strictest definition: soprano Lorna Windsor is the only performing artist on the album’s thirty-two tracks, which range from twenty seconds to almost eleven minutes in length.Vox Sola consists entirely of music for unaccompanied voice by composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Morton Feldman and Henri Pousseur to Louis Andriessen and James Macmillan. While Windsor’s is the only voice singing on the album, hers is not necessarily the only voice present. The highly individual voices of each composer, and their unique ways of elevating and manipulating the human voice, resound throughout, brought to life by Windsor’s seering musical intelligence and clarion, pliable and formidable instrument.
Works for solo voice are probably the oldest and most instinctual genre in existence. Though the solo songs of Vox Sola are considered modern, and in some instances “new” by classical-music standards, they call upon an ancient lineage of song, lacking harmony beyond natural overtones. Yet they vibrate with subtext in the images and sounds of nature, the human experience and memory evoked by everything from the simple folk melody of Louis Andriessen’s “Song of the Sea” to the lip-smacking at the end of György Kurtág’s “Ein Gourmand” and the humming and vowel sounds that open Macmillan’s “in angustiis II…”
The album begins with Morton Feldman’s “Only,” based on a simple, unadorned diatonic scale with one note per syllable, followed by the similarly straightforward “Pour Baudelaire” by Henri Pousseur. Luis de Pablo’s “Surcar vemos” broadens the vocal palette with melismas, arpeggios, and trills that reflect Luis de Góngora’s text depicting a flock of cranes taking flight.
Kurtàg’s Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christopher Lichtenbergs is represented by eighteen songs, all miniatures which take their text from aphorisms by Lichtenberg, an eighteenth-century German philosopher.There’s something almost manic in how quickly the vocal character shifts from song to song. Kurtág seems to expand the capabilities of the human singing voice, stretching the natural melodies of speech into whispers and yells. In some songs, the voice becomes a percussion instrument or it’s plucked like a violin. Similarly, Sylvano Bussotti’s “Lettura dei Braibanti” mines the full expressive and musical potential of the human voice, mixing brief melodic cells with spoken texts and extreme vocal effects that are surprisingly alluring.
Not every song is as challenging to the listener as the works of Kurtág and Bussotti. Andriessen’s “Song of the Sea” is a hauntingly beautiful folk ballad while the eight, multilingual songs of Mauricio Kagel’s Der Turm zu Babel have easily identifiable, if unconventional, melodic shapes.
The most recently composed work and the longest track on the album is Scottish composer James Macmillan’s “in angustiis II…,” using an eclectic mix of ancient and medieval texts in English, Dutch, and Latin, and incorporating sounds, humming, and syllables. It’s an extended meditation on the human voice as an instrument of expression, and a perfect culmination of the pieces that come before it.
Windsor is fully committed to these scores, from the effective simplicity of Feldman’s “Only” and Andriessen’s “Song of the Sea,” to the sonic ponderings of Macmillan. She leans into the ambiguity and haze of meaning, the strangeness and the playfulness, etching each work’s individuality with musical care and interpretive integrity. This is not an album for easy listening, but one that challenges the listener to contemplate and consider the power and mystery contained in a single voice. —Steven Jude Tietjen, Opera News AUGUST 2019 — VOL. 84, NO. 2.