Clarinetist Nancy Braithwaite‘s new quintet album To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway (streaming at Spotify) isn’t just darkly delightful obscurities. It’s a major achievement, the first-ever recording of Hemenway’s compositions. What an incredible find. While there are echoes as diverse as the French early modernists, Messiaen, Berg and Bernard Herrmann in her work, her sound is unmistakably her own. The thirty picturesque pieces on this deceptively epic album, many of them miniatures, pack a great deal into a little space. They’re accessible but acerbic, often troubled and melancholy, sometimes macabre. To call much of this material Lynchian is an understatement. It is astonishing that such impactful music has been overlooked for so long – and kudos to Braithwaite for having the vision to release it.
Now in her nineties, the Providence-based Hemenway was trained as an organist but gravitated toward art-song and opera. She’s written for both adults and children; her operas have been premiered at popular venues in New York and New England. Pianist Vaughan Schlepp brings dynamic intensity and crepuscular sensitivity to Hemenway’s persistently uneasy tableaux, Braithwaite’s effortlessly dancing phrases and crystalline resonance enhancing their many mysteries. Cellist Robert Stirling and sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander complete the ensemble.
The opening suite, Doors: Three Poems by W.S. Merwin, for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano brings to mind Bartok’s Mikrokosmos along with Ravel, Debussy and Amy Beach. From a steady, distantly anxious interweave and strenuous highs from the soprano, to an encroaching menace and finally a troubled waltz that doesn’t quite hit grand guignol, it’s a tour de force.
Questions of Travel for clarinet, cello and piano seems to chronicle a very questionable trip. The centerpiece is Journey of the Ancients, a slow, cinematic, broodingly stairstepping theme that rises to troubled crescendos with echoes of Ravel, Herrmann and early Schoenberg (and a wry Rachmaninoff quote). A waterfall flows down furtively; a siesta is depicted via a brooding canon. The coda is as apprehensive about the return as it is wistful for home.
In the album’s centerpiece, Braithwaite’s clarinet tersely answers and then mingles with Schlepp’s menacing neoromantic chromatics – it’s a David Lynch theme waiting to happen, with a Duet for the End of Time at the end.
The suite A Child’s Garden, for soprano, clarinet and piano is a particularly twisted playground of the mind. Braithwaite’s chilling downward cadenza in the opening sequence may be the album’s high point. Boats ripple anxiously on chilly waves; drafts waft relentlessly through an attic; a little later, friendly Schubertian companionship emerges in the form of a cow.
Asian Figures for clarinet and piano, based on texts by W.S. Merwin are less Asian than the title implies. The steady, four-part sequence, filled with Satie-esque longing, is another of the album’s most striking interludes. The Rachmaninovian, slowly crescendoing If I Could Find Her I Would See Nothing Else has a similar, aching melodicism.
The album concludes with Hemenway’s best-known suite, Four Poems of Langston Hughes: duets for two sopranos and piano, has stately gospel inflections punctuated by disarmingly piercing flourishes. All this makes you wonder how many other Edith Hemenways there are out there, overripe for discovery.