Susanne Abbuehl – The Gift
(ECM 372 7084. CD Review by Chris Parker)
On this, her third ECM album, singer Susanne Abbuehl (whose previous recordings feature music by jazz composers such as Carla Bley and Chick Corea) relies mainly on her own music to address what has always been her central concern as an artist: to explore and illuminate poetic texts through the medium of song.
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The Gift, where its predecessor Compass dealt with physical travel, concentrates on the spiritual and philosophical journeying indulged in by poets tied – emotionally or by force of circumstance – to a domestic setting. The succinct, superficially simple poems of Emily Dickinson (which constitute over half the album) are ideally suited to Abbuehl’s approach, being intentionally constructed to reveal fresh layers of meaning to repeated readings; likewise, the less enigmatic, more overtly emotional poetry of Sara Teasdale and the dramatic indulgences of Emily Brontë in the pathetic fallacy lend themselves naturally to the Swiss-Dutch singer’s intimately reverent, gently enquiring interrogations of their meaning.
Pianist Wolfert Brederode – Abbuehl’s musical partner for 20-odd years – pulls off little miracles of subtle sensitivity on each track, unerringly selecting precisely the right tone and quietly urging Matthieu Michel’s mellow, sonorous flugelhorn and Olavi Louhivuori’s multi-textured percussion effects along the musical path appropriate to each poem and its softly melodic Abbuehl setting.
Overall, then, The Gift is an archetypal ECM project, thoughtful, considered, scrupulously attentive to sonic nuance and beauty; all the more puzzling, therefore, is Abbuehl’s decision to modernise and personalise some of the poems by substituting ‘you’ for ‘thee’ in Emily Dickinson’s work and changing the gender of Wallace Stevens’s singer imagined in ‘In My Room’.
Thus (from Dickinson’s ‘Wild Nights’):
“Rowing in Eden –
Ah! the Sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
“Rowing in Eden –
Oh! the Sea!
Might I just moor – Tonight
These unnecessary changes – and a good many elsewhere – not only ruin the rhyme essential to the fitness of the poem’s closing line, but also lose the reckless intimacy of ‘thee’, the sudden involuntary awe of ‘Ah!’ and the blunt demand of ‘but’ – in short, they change the meaning of the poem and thus come close to torpedoing the entire project.
Malcolm Norman writes via email:
“Dear Chris Parker,
At least you, as reviewer of the latest Susanne Abbuehl CD, have pointed out that the project has effectively been torpedoed by the disastrous alteration of poems' words in their sung form! I am a devotee of Abbuehl's music, and “Compass” is one of my favourite ever albums. Having waited years for a new album, my disappointment, indeed annoyance, with “The Gift” was severe – I have only been able to listen to it a couple of times, the text alterations being so infuriating. (The rather “top heavy” use of the flugelhorn is also, to my mind, a negative development in the structure of Abbuehl's music!) It is to be hoped that Ms Abbuehl hears such criticisms as yours!