Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:


Samuel BARBER (1910-81) Knoxville - Summer of 1915; Hermit Songs
Aaron COPLAND (1900-90) Old American Songs (sets 1 and 2)
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989) Stabat Mater; Capital, Capitals
Eleanor Steber (sop)/Dumbarton Oaks Orchestra/William Strickland. Rec 7 Nov 1950 (Knoxville)
Leontyne Price (sop)/composer (piano) (Hermit) rec 19 Nov 1954
William Warfield (bar)/composer (Old American Songs) rec 16 Aug 1951, 18 Aug 1953
Jennie Tourel (mezzo)/New Music String 4tet (Stabat) rec 17 Apr 1951
Joseph Crawford (ten); Clyde S Turner (ten); Joseph James (bar); William C Smith (bass); composer (piano) (Capital, Capitals) rec 11 May 1951
ADD mono
SONY CLASSICAL MHK 60899 [79.31]
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Sony should take a bow for making so many prestigious and wise judgements in the production of this disc although as we shall see it is not all plain sailing.

Taking the package in your hand you are instantly struck by the beauty of it as an artefact. There is no jewel case; in its stead a fold out cardboard cover into which is glued the booklet and a slip envelope for the disc. The envelope is printed with the sort of 1950s instructional hi-fi, needle replacement and record care information and line drawings that used to adorn LP sleeves. The overall abstract design (by Stuart Davis) is taken from the 1950s LP cover for the Thomson Stabat Mater. Ned Rorem provides evocative background notes though I would have welcomed some hard information as well and more background on the works. Bless Rorem for mentioning Copland's music for the film North Star.

Recording quality is good but Strickland's orchestra's hard wiry violins in Knoxville (words by James Agee 1909-55 and the writer of the poem Sure on this shining night, also set by Barber) are a distraction. Steber's recording is a classic (she also commissioned the piece) and deservedly so - quite enchanting. Her operatic experience did not spoil her enunciation so, for the most part, you can make out what she is singing even under pressure. She has a quick discreet vibrato. Of modern versions I prefer Dawn Upshaw's on Teldec though I also have some happy memories of Molly McGurk's Unicorn LP recording. If you want the words you will have to look elsewhere. For all the sumptuous presentation SONY do not provide texts for these vocal works. A great pity.

Hermit Songs was written by Barber for Price so this could hardly be more definitive. Again an operatic voice is deployed and we might fear that she would just flatten the words. After all the sessions took place during a Porgy and Bess season. In fact Price is sensitivity itself with care given to project the words. Rorem recounts how the premiere hit the new dawn of what he calls the 'serial killers'. The composer and Price were roundly booed with only the odd cheer here and there from the 'reactionaries'. The ten succinct settings will remind you, passingly, of Britten but songs such as the Monk And His Cat (surely in Stephen Sondheim's mind when he wrote Passion) and Desire For Hermitage are big emotional statements and of course Price's voice was built for such moments. She even essays a reasonable shot at an Irish accent!

Leaving Barber we move to Aaron Copland's Old American Songs (both sets). William Warfield sings them to the manner born and immerses himself in every mood. When he sings I bought me a cat or Ching-a-ring chaw there is no hint of an artsong singer on condescension holiday. They are sung with a sincere relish. There is quite a range of unstarchy Americana here: spirituals, children's songs, tent evangelism, piano stool ballads and minstrel ditties.

Virgil Thomson is represented by Stabat Mater setting words by the French poet, Max Jacob (1876-1944), who was killed by the Nazis. Jacob's poems were also set by Poulenc. The 5 minute setting is lent poignant edge by the string quartet which has as its violist Walter Trampler. Tourel (another operatic voice!) negotiates the Gallic rapids with a passable if fallible accent. Gertrude Stein collaborated with Thomson on two of his operas: Mother of Us All (1947) and Four Saints in Three Acts (1934). Capital, Capitals is an experimental work of the 1927. Its text is typically loopy (and once grossly offensive) nonsense and while it speaks in sentences do not strive too hard to find some meaning. A curiosity - and candidly tiresome. Will we hear the work of Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen and the Tilbury circle in 2020 inn the same way? With the composer at the piano (providing a pretty bare musical foundation) we can be reasonably sure that this is an authoritative interpretation.

Knoxville was originally coupled with Barber's Four Excursions (Rudolf Firkusny), Hermit Songs with Alexei Haieff's First Quartet; Thomson with Lou Harrison and American Songs with some sea chanties.

I should have mentioned the wonderful handful of session photographs included in the booklet.

Rob Barnett


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