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Ashokan Farewell/Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster
Jay UNGAR Ashokan Farewell [5:10]
Molly MASON Bound for Another Harvest Home [4:05]
Jay UNGAR Prairie Spring [3:42]
Jay UNGAR Haymaker’s Hoedown [2:45]
15th Century German, arr. Jay UNGAR and Molly MASON Solstice Hymn [2:54]
Jay UNGAR Thanksgiving Waltz [3:46]
TRADITIONAL, arr. Jay UNGAR, Molly MASON & Balfa Toujours La Chanson de Mardi Gras [3:50]
William STEPP/Aaron COPLAND, arr. Jay UNGAR Bonaparte’s Retreat/Hoedown [5:09]
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864), arr. Jay UNGAR and Molly MASON with David ALPHER
Violin solo [0:25]
Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair [4:17]
Hard times, come again no more [5:13]
The Voice of Bygone Days [3:56]
Foster Favourites Medley [3:50]
Beautiful Dreamer [3:53]
That’s what’s the matter [3:18]
Old Home Medley [4:56]
Sweetly she sleeps, my Alice fair [3:27]
My wife is a most knowing woman [3:47]
Linger in blissful repose [3:07]
Ah! May the red rose live alway [5:21]
Jay Ungar (violin); Molly Mason (guitar); Thomas Hampson (baritone); David Alpher (piano)
Balfa Toujours appear on La Chanson de Mardi Gras
Nashville Chamber Orchestra/Paul Gambill, appears on Bonaparte’s Retreat/Hoedown rec. BMG Studios, New York, 8-9 April, 6 May, 8-10 July 1992; Great Hall, Glen Tonche Studios, Woodstock, New York and Austin Pea State University, Clarksville, Tennessee, 1999. DDD
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 0946 3 82225 2 1 [77:21]

 


Jay Ungar is not exactly a household name, but perhaps it should be. He is a very versatile violinist as well as a capable composer and arranger. This latest release does much to showcase his considerable talent, with each work either composed or arranged by Ungar in addition to his performing on every track.

It should be noted that this is a compilation CD of selected recordings from two previously released albums: American Dreamer, released in 1992, and Harvest Home from 1999. The majority, but not the entirety, of each album is contained here. They are both on the same physical disc, but the album notes and booklet make it clear that these are intended to be two distinct collections delivered on the same CD.

Americans will recognize Ashokan Farewell from the Ken Burns television miniseries The Civil War. This was the plaintive air on the violin that served as the show’s theme song. It was composed in 1982 by Jay Ungar as an expression of his longing for the town of Ashokan, New York, and the musicians and friends he had there. It is written in the style of a traditional Scottish lament, and has the power to touch the soul. If the album went no further, this performance alone would make the album worth listening. Luckily the quality of the album is sustained throughout.

Another highlight is Bonaparte’s Retreat/Hoedown, which is a nice musical portmanteau, taking elements from Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” from Rodeo as well as William Stepp’s Bonaparte’s Retreat, which was quoted extensively in the Copland work. The piece is arranged in part for solo violin and guitar (like the Stepp work), alternating with sections in a more Copland-inspired setting performed by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.

Additionally La Chanson de Mardi Gras makes use of a stellar cast of Cajun musicians from Balfa Toujours for an authentic swamp-country romp. The exuberant performance is flawlessly executed. Anyone who has ever been to Southern Louisiana will be instantly transported back for four minutes.

Stephen Foster songs often suffer in performance from over-familiarity. Every beginning musician learns Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races and Beautiful Dreamer in some form. Foster so perfectly imitated the style of folk songs that his music transformed into them. The result is that one can rarely find a musician willing to perform these works in a serious way. Most recordings of Foster’s songs sound as if they’re being played as a joke for other musicians. This is not the case here. These tracks are excellently recorded and performed in a wonderful, heartfelt way, filled with the exuberance of a country dance. It is quite impossible to listen to these performances without tapping your foot and wanting to join in the dancing.

Thomas Hampson, normally known as an operatic baritone, is the vocalist on the Stephen Foster recordings, and his performances are superb. His warm voice is perfectly suited to these songs. Each sounds heartfelt and sincere. Personally, I’ve never been more moved by a recording of Hard times, come again no more. His interpretation of Beautiful Dreamer is equally touching. Truly, he does a masterful job on his portion.

All told, this is a very solid CD. Most listeners do not currently own much by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, so replication of existing recordings is unlikely. Each track is capable of standing on its own and the album is rife with nearly-magical moments. It would be difficult to recommend an album more highly. 

Patrick Gary

 

 


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