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William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Songs of Innocence and Experience (William Blake) (1956-1982)
Christine Brewer; Measha Brueggergosman; Ilana Davidson; Carmen Pelton (sop) Joan Morris (mezzo) Marietta Simpson (alto)
Thomas Young (ten) Nathan Lee Graham (speaker/vocals) Tommy Morgan (harmonica) Peter 'Madcat' Ruth (harmonica and vocals) Jeremy Kittel (fiddle) Michigan State University Children's Choir University of Michigan University Choir and Orpheus Singers University Musical Society Choral Union University of Michigan Chamber Choir University of Michigan Contemporary Directions Ensemble University Musical Society University of Michigan School of Music, Ann Arbor, Michigan/Leonard Slatkin rec. live concert, 8 April 2004, Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Michigan. USA. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559216-18 [3 CDs: 51:29 + 43:00 + 42:42]


Bolcom is from Seattle and was a private pupil of another composer favoured by Naxos, George Frederick McKay. He also studied with Milhaud. Bolcomís works include seven symphonies, chamber music, concertos for cello, piano and clarinet, three cabaret operas, three operas - a fourth is in the works. Since 1973 Bolcom has accompanied his wife Joan Morris in many recital tours and several recordings.

The time invested by Bolcom in the writing of this magnum opus is testimony to the sheer grip of Blake's poetry. Had this been slacker and Bolcomís approach more pragmatic he would never have written a work so expensive to programme. Also I doubt that he would have written a piece which has a span longer than the conventional concert evening.

The Songs of Innocence and Experience present a varied cavalcade - a moving and exhilarating tapestry in which styles are not hermetically divided into movements and tracks. Art-song singing alternates with spiritual orthodoxy. Salty harmonica and lachrymose Appalachian/Celtic fiddle jostle with civil war sampler sentiment. Melancholy fiddle and harmonica solos comes up against country and western style oratory and awesome Bosch-like apocalyptic material in which brass and percussion bray and thunder.

The Songs of Innocence are in three parts, across 22 tracks. They are mostly for orchestra with soloists and or chorus. These are on CD1. Bolcom's own brief but to the point note remarks that some parts were sketched in 1956. However most date from 1973-74 and 1979-1982.

Nathan Lee Graham's The Little Black Boy is superbly done with the cawing and rolling harmonica providing jazzy counterpoint to the sing-song line. Cowboy unison singing, such as you find in Roy Harris's Folksong Symphony (No. 4), contrasts with tart Stravinskian interjections from the orchestra. Playground singsong and simple rhythmic pummelling can be heard in Holy Thursday. This is instantly contrasted with the skittering bat-flight represented by the momentary Blossom (CD1 tr. 12). Joan Morris's pristine singing of The Divine Image is memorable with minimal and extremely discreet orchestral underpinning. The nocturnal nature of part III of the Songs of Innocence is strongly proclaimed. Nocturnal it may be but it is not gloomy; thoughtful but not pessimistic. On another's sorrow (CD1 tr. 19) recalls the choral writing of William Mathias in This Worlde's Joie with a touch of Orff's Trionfi for good measure.

The Songs of Experience are divided into two volumes - one volume per disc: CD2 and CD3. Each volume is in three parts.† There are thirty-three episodes in all.

The first five tracks or parts of CD2 reflect chaos and nightmare landscapes leavened with the sort of operatic nobility found in Tippett's A Child of our Time. When we get to The Fly and The Tyger (CD2 trs. 6 and 7) innocence returns together with the rhythmic Orff-like zest that lit up many of the Songs of Innocence. The Little Girl Found (CD2 tr. 10) seemingly draws on the English choral tradition of Moeran and Grainger. Part III of Volume 1 (CD2 tr. 11) starts with Stravinskian pep - small-scale and then epic, pounding away at first in delicacy and then Oedipally loud. With the collusion of fiddle and harmonica Joan Morris returns for The Little Vagabond. Walton wrote a con malizia movement for his First Symphony. That marking and mood would also suit A Poison Tree which is relished in pungency by the orchestra and by Nathan Lee Graham. After the operatic dramatics of Ilana Davidson's The Angel comes Marietta Simpson's The Sick Rose (superbly set also, by the way, by Geoffrey Bush in his Summer Serenade). Most deeply affecting is the final part of Part III Vol I, To Tirzah which is delivered both chorally and in speech.

CD3 gives us vol 2 of the Songs of Experience. Once again the U-M Chamber Choir are called on for their English pastoral best. They deliver with vernal fidelity. After this comes the stripped and acrid Stravinskian soloistic rhythms of The Lilly, as sung by Thomas Young with the combined choirs. This recalls, as the choirs rise to prominence, the Morris Dance frolics of Howard Hanson's Merry Mount (a work desperately in need of a modern recording - until then enjoy Naxos 's historical recording from the 1930s - doesnít sound bad at all). Bolcom returns to the yawning chasm and apocalypse of despair for Infant Sorrow. This uses all the apparatus of Ligeti's Grand Macabre and Penderecki Devils of Loudun.

At the start of CD3 there is a vocalise for choir. This is totally unlike Rachmaninovís† Vocalise. Instead we have what amounts to a virtuoso concerto for chorus which wails like a tsunami and injects Ďpica-pauí rhythmic material of the sort you can hear in Villa-Lobosís Brazilian pieces. There is a lashed momentum in Bolcom and Blakeís description of London; portrayed as a feral sink of depravity and violence. This is tartly married with a sort of hideous rumba undertow. If you are looking for a single demonstration track try this one. Listen for Nathan Lee Graham - one of the real stars to emerge from this recording - rasping out the words accompanied by saxophone and brass. In Voces clamandae the horror of the chasm is evoked. Fear wells up in terrible triumph in the repeated Brucknerian waves at the start of CD3 tr. 16. The image summoned is of emotionally misshapen creatures singing in raw and ironic paean to imperfection:-

Cruelty has Human Heart

And Jealousy a Human Face

Terror the Human Form Divine

And Secrecy the Human Dress

The Human Dress is Forged Iron

The Human Form a fiery Forge

The Human Face, a furnace seal'd

The Human Heart is hungry Gorge.

The piece ends with a repeat of those clamant Brucknerian waves now touched with bleakness. Bolcom and Blake offer no false redemption; no transfiguration.

In the booklet Bolcom acknowledges and thanks fellow composer Michael Daugherty for initiating this ambitious project. His programme notes are from 1984 and these are brought up to date with several paragraphs from 2004. He recounts the work's performance history: sixteen in all. Stuttgart saw the world premiere with Dennis Russell Davies, then came the US premiere in Ann Arbor with the Brooklyn Phil under Lukas Foss. Other performances have been given in St Louis, London, New York and California. There were approaching 450 performers on stage for the Ann Arbor performances. Blake's poems are printed in full in the booklet which also lists every member of the orchestra and choirs.

All credit to Naxos and everyone concerned for their benevolent opportunism in capturing this major work at a rare live concert.

Rob Barnett

Link to press release


Disc: 1
1. Introduction - Thomas Young
2. The Echoing Green - Combined Choruses
3. The Lamb - Measha Brueggergosman
4. The Shepherd - Peter 'Madcat' Ruth
5. Infant Joy - Marietta Simpson
6. The Little Black Boy - Nathan Lee Graham
7. Laughing Song - U-M Chamber Choir
8. Spring - Thomas Young
9. A Cradle Song - Linda Hohenfeld
10. Nurse's Song - Joan Morris
11. Holy Thursday - Combined Choruses
12. The Blossom - Measha Brueggergosman
13. Interlude - Orchestra
14. The Chimney Sweeper - Nathan Lee Graham
15. The Divine Image - Joan Morris
16. Nocturne - Orchestra
17. Night - Thomas Young
18. A Dream - Ilana Davidson
19. On Another's Sorrow - Combined Choruses
20. The Little Boy Lost - Carmen Pelton
21. The Little Boy Found - Nathan Lee Graham
22. Coda - Orchestra

Disc: 2
1. Introduction - Orchestra
2. Hear The Voice Of The Bard - Nmon Ford
3. Interlude - Orchestra
4. Earth's Answer - Christine Brewer
5. Nurse's Song - Joan Morris
6. The Fly - MSU Children's Choir
7. The Tyger - Combined Choruses
8. The Little Girl Lost - Nmon Ford
9. In The Southern Clime - U-M Chamber Choir
10. The Little Girl Found - Combined Choruses
11. The Clod And The Pebble - Thomas Young
12. The Little Vagabond - Joan Morris
13. Holy Thursday - Carmen Pelton
14. A Poisin Tree - Nathan Lee Graham
15. The Angel - Ilana Davidson
16. The Sick Rose - Marietta Simpson
17. To Tirzah - Combined Choruses

Disc: 3
1. The Voice Of The Ancient Bard - Nmon Ford
2. My Pretty Rose Tree - Chorus Men
3. Ah! Sun-Flower - U-M Chamber Choir
4. The Lilly - Thomas Young
5. Introduction To Part V - Orchestra
6. The Garden Of Love - Thomas Young
7. A Little Boy Lost - Carmen Pelton
8. A Little Girl Lost - Christine Brewer
9. Infant Sorrow - U-M Chamber Choir Soloists
10. Vocalise - Combined Choruses
11. London - Nathan Lee Graham
12. The School Boy - Linda Hohenfeld
13. The Chimney Sweeper - U-M Chamber Choir
14. The Human Abstract - Nmon Ford
15. Interlude: Voces Clamandae - Orchestra
16. A Divine Image - Soloists


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