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William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
You Cannot Have Me Now – or, The Military Orgy*, from Greatshot [5’23”]
Night, Make My Day from Casino Paradise [2’17”]
The Digital Wonder Watch* (An Advertisement) [3’03”]
My Father the Gangster from Casino Paradise [2’39”]
The Last Days of Mankind [3’29”]
Songs to Dance* [9’17”]
I Will Breathe a Mountain [19’39”]
Tillinghast Duo* [5’23”]
Mary* [5’06”]
Three Songs* from The Wind in the Willows [5’15”]
When We Built The Church* from Dynamite Tonite [2’10”]
*World première recordings
Carole Farley (soprano); William Bolcom (piano)
Recorded 28-31 December 2004 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England DDD


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In 2000 the American soprano, Carole Farley, teamed up with her fellow countryman, Ned Rorem, to produce a splendid Naxos CD containing a selection of Rorem’s songs (see review).

Now she’s done it again, this time combining with another noted American composer, William Bolcom.

Like Rorem, William Bolcom has produced a significant corpus of songs during his career. However, whereas Rorem has, so far as I know, confined himself to the metier of art song, Bolcom has composed prolifically and successfully in two different genres, namely art songs and cabaret or theatrical songs. This CD contains examples of both of these aspects of his work. In a note accompanying the disc Bolcom writes approvingly of Miss Farley’s ability to “shift stylistic gears”, an ability that this programme tests to the full.

She plunges straight in with ‘You Cannot Have Me Now’, which begins arrestingly with an ear-piercing scream! Miss Farley gives an unbuttoned performance of this number, complete with Germanic accent. I may as well admit that the song is not really to my taste but she puts it across with splendid panache. She displays a similar relish as a sexy chanteuse taking the role of Cis in two numbers from Casino Paradise. I’m a little puzzled as to why these two items weren’t tracked consecutively. I was particularly taken with ‘My Father the Gangster’ where the rippling piano accompaniment and the popular idiom belie the underlying pathos of the text. Miss Farley is most involving.

Recently I reviewed Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (see review). This substantial work, a key one in Bolcom’s output, was devoted entirely to settings of poetry by William Blake. Blake crops up here as well in a single song, ‘Mary’. This is a strange poem. It starts off in deceptive innocence but before long there are darker undertones. Bolcom catches all this very well indeed. His setting commences as a quite engaging piece in waltz time. The waltz rhythm pervades the song but the music becomes much less simple as the poem unfolds. He and Miss Farley give a very fine account of this intriguing song.

The main offering here is the cycle of eleven songs, I Will Breathe a Mountain. These were written for the distinguished mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne and the commission was, I believe, part of the celebrations for the centenary of Carnegie Hall. Miss Horne made a memorable recoding of the cycle for BMG in 1993 (09026 68771 2). The poems set by Bolcom are all authored by American women, most of whom were twentieth-century writers. The writer, Alice Fulton, one of whose own poems is included, assisted him in most of his selection. I say “most of” because Marilyn Horne herself specified one poem. This was The Bustle in the House by Emily Dickinson, which became the eighth song in the cycle. This poem had particular connotations for Miss Horne because she had read it at her brother’s funeral and I don’t think it’s any accident that this is one of the most deeply felt performances in her recording.

It’s been fascinating to compare both recordings, each of which is excellent in its own right. I have neither perfect pitch nor access to a score of these songs but, so far as I can tell, Miss Farley sings all of them in higher keys than Miss Horne – not a surprise given their different vocal ranges. What is very noticeable is the disparity between the duration of the performances. This newcomer lasts 19’39” but Miss Horne takes 24’21”. That’s quite a discrepancy in a work of this length. As you’ll gather, in most songs Miss Horne is more expansive than Miss Farley although in three their timings are pretty well identical. I think that the generally faster speeds and, perhaps, the use of higher keys, brings a degree of urgency, even abrasiveness, to Miss Farley’s performance that we don’t find in Miss Horne’s. Let me say at once that I don’t use the word “abrasiveness” in a pejorative sense. Indeed, this characteristic is quite appropriate to some of the settings. On balance I think I prefer Miss Horne’s greater degree of warmth, her richer, rounder tone but Miss Farley’s performance is a fine and committed one and I can imagine that many people will prefer the greater urgency and, perhaps, sense of risk that she brings to the music. Several of the poems are far from easy to understand but Miss Farley communicates them all vividly. The vocal writing ranges from Sprechstimme to warm lyricism and often the singer is required to execute prodigious leaps from low register to high or vice versa. None of these technical demands seems to present the slightest difficulty to Miss Farley. I’ll not pretend that this cycle is an easy listen at times but it seems to me to be a major contribution to the genre and in Carole Farley it has an impassioned and highly accomplished advocate. One can only assume that her performance of these songs, and indeed all of the items here recorded, has the approval of the composer, whose presence at the piano lends these performances particular authenticity and authority.

This is a most interesting and wide-ranging anthology of songs by William Bolcom. Since he is a prolific songwriter I suspect that one CD can’t do more than give a flavour of his output. However, this will provide a good introduction. All the texts are provided, in English only, but there’s a German translation of the composer’s notes.

Naxos are to be congratulated on yet another enterprising issue. A few years ago such a CD would probably not have been issued, even at full price, but now here we have an excellent opportunity to sample Bolcom’s songs in first rate performances and at a most affordable price. Anyone with an interest in the song repertoire who is possessed of an enquiring ear should certainly investigate this disc.

John Quinn

see also interview with Carole Farley by Anne Ozorio




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