The First of All My Dreams by Ellen Mandel and Todd Almond

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The First of All My Dreams
by Todd Almond and Ellen Mandel
Mopat Music / Brite Records (884501075169)
Release Date: 2008

Anyone who thinks that song lyrics have to be facile or simple haven’t listened to Ellen Mandel’s exquisite CD The First of All My Dreams. This CD contains some of the most beautiful and complex poems of all time, set perfectly to music and sung with rich intensity by tenor Todd Almond. I’ve had this CD on an endless loop in my car over the past two weeks, and every morning I have to force myself to turn it off when I reluctantly reach my destination. Mandel seems to have a special affinity for the works of ee cummings, having composed a whole CD of cummings pieces titled A Wind Has Blown the Rain Away. This is no small accomplishment. The iconic punctuation, the structures, and placement mean that you have to see the words on a page to appreciate what cummings intended. However, Mandel has such a deep understanding of the work, that she provides a kind of musical equivalent to the visuals through tones, word repetition, and interludes. The result is stunning and a kind of new work of art. “stinging gold” is the first cummings piece and it soars through the theatricality of Almond’s vibrato which exacerbates the sheer beauty of the lyrics

Other pieces like the title song “the first of all my dreams” and “this is the garden” are equally spectacular using the repetition of “blossoming” at the end of the title song and careful enunciation on some of cummings’ made up words like “huger” and “foreverfully” to provide what you might otherwise get from the placement of the words. Almond never misses a beat, and adds an actor’s skill to his lovely voice to also help convey the meaning. Some of my favourite Yeats poems are also included, such as “to an isle in the water”, “down by the saley gradens”, and “the meditation of the old fisherman”. There are also poems by Seamus Heaney, Glyn Maxwell, Daniel Pociernicki, Mandel’s own work and one of her collaborations with Michael Lydon. I have to admit to having a soft spot for what Mandel has done with the cummings work, but all of the pieces are exquisite, shining a light on the power of the language without overshadowing it, and adding additional meaning through both the music, and the expression of it vocally.

Even the Sprung Rhythm of Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”, one of Hopkins’ most powerful and complicated of poems, is handled perfectly, through vocals that range between anger, joy, confusion and elated whispers:

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

Despite the depth in the lyrics, the pieces remain accessible to the listener – immediately enjoyable and catchy even, growing more so with each listen. The is a deft lightness in the work, from the soft reminiscence of Yeats’ “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” to the light Broadway style trills on “Don’t Ask Why.” There’s plenty of humour here too. Mandel’s piece “I Apologize” is both jaunty and acerbic, fitting neatly between the darkly quiet “this is the garden” and Yeats’ “the meditation of the old fisherman”, both of which infuse visual beauty with impending death and decay. Once again, Mandel picks up on the multiple meanings in the poetry and conveys it smoothly and subtly without ever sacrificing the musicality.

This is certainly a CD for poetry lovers, and does utter justice to the works it contains, but it’s also a CD for music lovers who will enjoy both the beauty of the music, the power of the lyrics, and the overall delicacy of its presentation.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.

Article first published as Music Review: Todd Almond and Ellen Mandel – The First of All My Dreams on Blogcritics.

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