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Wondrous Free - Song of America II
Francis HOPKINSON (1737 - 1791) My days have been so wondrous free (1759) [1.28] (1)
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 - 1990) A simple song (1971) [4.34] (1)
Charles IVES (1874 - 1954) Songs my mother taught me (1895) [2.54] (1)
Jay UNGAR (b. 1946) A time for farewell (1982) [2.54] (1)
arr. Stephen WHITE (b. 1943) Shenandoah [2.40] (1)
Elinor Remick WARREN (1900 - 1991) God be in my heart (1950) [2.03] (1)
John Alden CARPENTER (1876 - 1951) Looking glass river (1909) [2.31] (2)
Elino Remick WARREN (1900 - 1991) At Even (c. 1930) [2.11] (1)
John Woods DUKE (1899 - 1984) Richard Cory (1948) [2.44] (2); Miniver Cheevy (1948) [5.39] (2); Luke Havergal (1948) [4.41] (2)
William Grant STILL (1895 - 1978) Grief (1953) [2.21] (1)
Paul BOWLES (1910 - 2002) Blue Mountain Ballads (1946) [7.25] (2)
Charles IVES (1874 - 1954) In Flanders fields (1917) [2.19] (1)
Sidney HOMER (1864 - 1953) General Booth enters into Heaven (1926) [5.23] (2)
Edward MACDOWELL (1860 - 1900) The Sea (1893) [2.24] (1)
Stephen FOSTER (1826 - 1864) Nelly was a Lady (1849) [3.57] (2); Hard Times (1855) [4.37] (2)
Charles IVES (1874 - 1954) Memories (1897) [2.36] (2)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Wolfram Rieger (piano) (1); Craig Rutenberg (piano) (2)
rec. 2009 Teldex Studios Berlin (1) and Rose Studio, Lincoln Center New York (2)
THOMAS HAMPSON MEDIA THM5432 [64.25] 
Experience Classicsonline


This is the second instalment of Thomas Hampson’s Song of America project, released on his own label. It is linked to his Hampsong project aimed at showcasing American song and poetry. The title of the current album comes from the first song in the recital which was written in 1759 by Francis Hopkinson, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and credited with writing the first American art song. The piece comes over as a short folk-ballad and it is this style which underlies many of the songs on this disc. Hampson emphasises this by following the Hopkinson with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwarz’s Simple Song from Mass. Here Bernstein seems to be presenting the folk-ballad for a new audience spiced up with just a little jazz.

Sitting between Hopkinson and Bernstein is Charles Ives. His Songs my Mother Taught Me seems similarly to reflect the folk and hymn tunes that Ives treasured. Only in the accompaniment do hints of Ives’s more complex musical world come through. More songs by Ives occur later in the recital, but next on the disc is a song by Jay Ungar, a folk-influenced musician who is here represented by an unashamedly romantic ballad with words by Cleo Laine. Laine herself seems to have performed the song with James Galway. Despite its impeccable modern credentials, this song has a simple directness which links it back to the Hopkinson.

Shenandoah is very traditional and is performed here in an arrangement with quite a dramatic accompaniment by Stephen White.

Elinor Remick Warren’s God be in my Heart has a simplicity of utterance which belies the complexity of thought behind the music. Warren was a 20th century neo-Romantic composer, associated with such as Samuel Barber, but Warren has yet to gain the recognition she perhaps deserves. John Alden Carpenter’s music encompassed jazz-inspired pieces, ballets and impressionistic orchestral pieces. His song Looking glass river, setting Robert Louis Stevenson has a quiet dignity and is one of the real art songs on the disc. Warren’s attractive At Even has hints of RVW’s own Stevenson setting Songs of Travel in both the words (Thomas S. Jones, Jr) and the music.

The poem Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson was adapted into a song by Simon and Garfunkel. The version here is by John Woods Duke, a Professor at Smith College who trained with Nadia Boulanger and Artur Schnabel. Duke is best known for his art songs, but this version of Richard Cory seems rather oddly wandering, though Duke’s setting is not without humour despite the fact that the subject of the poem commits suicide. Miniver Cheevy is another Duke song setting - a Robinson poem. Again I rather found the poem a little oddly humorous, Duke brings out the humour by treating it in a completely dead-pan fashion. The final Duke/Robinson song is Luke Havergal which comes over simply as a Romantic ballad. In both of these I had worries over Hampson’s pronunciation; surely the lines ‘Albeit he had never seen one’ and ‘Could he have been one’ should reflect the double-syllable rhyme at the end, though Hampson pronounces ‘been’ as ‘bin’ which rather fails the rhyme. Similarly his treatment of ‘Havergal’ does not always match Robinson’s rhyming scheme.

William Grant Still was an African-American, whose studies include time at the Oberlin and New England conservatories as well as studying with Edgard Varèse. This song is a big Romantic ballad that rather belies its 1953 date of composition. The text by LeRoy V. Brant (b. 1930) was one that I mistook for a Victorian piece on first hearing.

The Blue Mountain Ballads by polymath Paul Bowles, set poems by Tennessee Williams and date from Bowles’ decade in New York when he collaborated with both Williams and Orson Welles. In these songs Bowles blends jazz, blues, ragtime and classical to create brilliant settings of Williams’ evocations of the Deep South.

Charles Ives’ In Flanders Fields seems to be on less sure footing. His setting of John McCrae’s poem has a Romantic oddity to it which feels at odds with the text. Sidney Homer’s General Booth enters into Heaven, sets Vachel Lindsay’s poem. Homer’s version is altogether more straightforward than Ives’s own setting of the text. Homer includes the Salvation Army Hymn ‘Are you Washed in the Blood of the Lamb’ and the song has an admirable narrative thrust. You are never quite sure whether Lindsay and Homer are serious. I suspect that Lindsay was but Homer wasn’t but have no real basis for this belief.

Edward MacDowell’s The Sea is an example of the 19th century American art song from era when the genre was still struggling to develop its own style; whereas the works of Stephen Foster, whilst closer to the folk ballad, develop a distinctiveness of their own. I found both Nelly was a Lady and Hard Times a bit too sentimental for my taste, though Hampson’s performance of them hardly puts a foot wrong. In addition there is something bathetic about the lines ‘Nelly was lady, Last night she died’. 
And frankly I found Ives’s Memories simply odd, with the first part describing aptly the excitement before curtain-up at the theatre and the contrasting second being a sentimental pathetic song.

Most of the songs on this disc need careful handling. They must be treated seriously but the performers must bring out their open and simple directness, without ever seeming to patronise or to send them up. Hampson and his accompanists do this to perfection. Individually one or two of the songs are rather wanting, but as a programme they give us a clear feel for the way one aspect of American song developed. What is interesting is how many of the earlier pieces contain curious pre-echoes of the American 20th century including such composers as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.

The booklet includes a thoughtful essay by Thomas Hampson and full texts for all of the songs.

This is an impressive recital; one which sheds a sympathetic and intelligent light on a different aspect of song. All lovers of good singing will want to hear it.

Robert Hugill

 


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