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Old American Songs
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864) arr. Ned ROREM (b.1923)
Jeanie with the light brown hair [3:33];
Stephen FOSTER arr. Warren Michel SWENSON
(b.1937)

Old folks at home [4:41]; Ah! may the red rose live alway [3:10]; Was my brother in the battle? [2:35]; Gentle Annie [3:14]; Why no one to love? [2:53]; My old Kentucky home, good night [4:56];
Traditional arr. Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
The lonesome dove [3:59]; Hop up, my ladies [1:36];
Traditional arr. Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Shenandoah [2:09];
Traditional arr. Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Soldier, won’t you marry me? [1:53]; I wonder as I wander [3:29]; Lord! I married me a wife [1:20]; Dink’s Song [2:57]; The deaf woman’s courtship [1:22];
Traditional arr. Jake HEGGIE (b.1961)
Dixie [3:54]; Barb’ry Allen [3:18]; He’s gone away [2:44];
Traditional arr. Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Simple gifts [1:47]; I bought me a cat [2:22]; Long time ago [2:53]; At the river [3:10]; Ching-a-ring Chaw [1:32]
Taryn Fiebig (soprano), Juan Jackson (tenor), Andrew Greene (piano)
rec. 23-24 October 2006 Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Texts included
ABC CLASSICS 476 6169 [68:05]


Although it is possible to dispute whether all of these songs are either old or, in origin, American, what this disc offers is an interesting comparison of different ways of arranging traditional or popular songs for concert use. The songs are divided between the two singers, with a number of duets, all of which adds to the variety of the programme. A higher proportion of more vigorous or cheerful songs would have helped, especially near the start, but it can still be played through as it stands with general pleasure, despite the shortcomings of one singer and of some of the arrangements.

The first seven songs are by Stephen Foster. Ned Rorem’s version of “Jeanie with the light brown hair” starts very quietly and simply with a wonderful ambiguity which makes the listener very aware that the singer is referring to a dream rather than reality. This arrangement really adds something to the song, unlike the six succeeding arrangements by Warren Michel Swenson which sound like an inferior cocktail bar pianist doodling around the melodies. These greatly reduce the power of simple but potentially very moving songs. Earlier recordings using Foster’s own accompaniment show how effective they can be. The present version wholly misses for instance the obsessive quality of “The old folks at home”, as do the versions of the other five songs miss their essential characters. I find it hard to imagine a purchaser of this disc who would want to play them a second time, let alone more, which makes their placing near the start of the disc unfortunate as the rest of the programme has much more to offer in terms of invention and variety. 

The two Kurt Weill arrangements are workmanlike but effective, and the second offers a welcome change of mood, but it is with Percy Grainger’s “Shenandoah” that at last we hear how much can be added by a composer willing to concentrate on bringing out the essence of a song. It is spare but wonderfully powerful, with the pianist adding what is needed and then being silent. The Britten songs, amongst his less familiar arrangements, all take a positive approach to the original material, concentrating on the words and their meaning, as well as on the implications of the tunes. I especially enjoyed the very short “Lord! I married me a wife”, wholly bitter in character and wonderfully contrasted with the next item – “Dink’s Song” - which I had not heard before. Jake Heggie’s three songs are also varied, starting with a version of “Dixie” which begins quietly and deliberately avoids all that the listener might expect. This is a real highlight of the disc, as are the other two Heggie songs. 

The final songs come from Copland’s two sets of Old American Songs, which are justly well known and show up well in comparison with many of the other songs on the disc. I enjoyed them all, especially “Long time ago” where Copland shows how it is possible to add to the simple accompaniments of Foster-like songs without contradicting their essential character.

The tenor Juan Jackson is given the majority of the songs. It is no surprise to learn from the notes that he has spent most of his time in musicals, as he has a tendency to employ mannerisms commonly found there. I found his often wide vibrato, gulps, broken lines and theatricality all too frequently harmful to the character and effectiveness of the arrangements, although I did welcome the clarity of his diction. The soprano, Taryn Fiebig, appears to have a light voice, well used in a more conventional concert manner. Both are well and positively accompanied by Andrew Greene. 

Once the dull Foster arrangements are passed, this is a disc with many virtues and much interest. I could imagine the same concept having been tackled better with a more interesting choice of songs and more consistent singers, but if you are attracted by it you will find much to enjoy here. 

John Sheppard

 

 


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