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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.