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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.