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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Paul ROBESON
Songs of Free Men

Songs by Lehman ENGEL, Ivan DZERZHINSKY, Felix MENDELSSOHN, Marc Blitzstein, Earl ROBINSON, Isaac DONAYEVSKY, Alexander GRETCHANINOFF. Modest MUSSORGSKY, Avery ROBINSON. George H. CLUTSAM, Lily STRICKLAND, Peter DEROSE, Oscar HAMMERSTEIN & Jerome KERN, Oley SPEAKS, George GERSHWIN
Full details at foot of review
Paul Robeson, Bass-Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
rec 1942, 1945, 1947
SONY MHK 63223
[71.23]
SONY have tucked this connoisseurs' anthology away in the folds of their Masterworks Heritage series. The recordings are all in mono but defy any limitations of single channel sound with Robeson's distinctive, soft, secure, mocha-toned voice.

The collection has a pronounced if not exclusive dissident emphasis. Songs of Free Men indeed! Robeson was a lifelong thorn in the side of the forces of convention and found himself a juicy target for the House Unamerican Activities Committee amid the perfervid intolerance of the 1950s.

The songs that drew flak include the two Dzerzhinsky items which are taken from the Sholokhov-based opera Quiet Flows the Don. These are the only recordings of anything by Dzerzhinsky. That they were recorded at all by Columbia must surely have been down to the spirit of 1942 in which the USA made common cause with Stalin's USSR against Hitler's Barbarossa invasion. In those brief years hands were clasped across the ocean. When the grip relaxed the relationship was replaced with the Cold War's hostility, suspicion and fear.

In Dzerzhinsky's From Border to Border and O How Proud Robeson alternates sung English with sung Russian. Later he sings in Spanish as well but always after the words have been sung in English. Like 17 of the 25 tracks these songs are with long-time accompanist, Lawrence Brown: with piano rather than orchestra.

Other tracks follow the same line. There is the Marc Blitzstein song (catchy and honest), John Henry and Earl Robinson's Joe Hill (Alan Bush, who must surely have idolised Robeson, wrote a whole opera on the story of Joe Hill). A steady vivacious commitment glows from the Peat Bog Soldiers. Four Insurgent Generals is a grimly retributive memento of the Spanish Civil War with its words 'we shall avenge them! The Donayevsky starts in Russian. In the Knipper (when will he hear his symphonies?) Robeson achieves miracles of quiet projection. Something of the catchy comradeship and shiver of the times is surely captured in this song. A slight shudder is engendered when Robeson sings of the prairie rather than the steppe or the plains.

Aggression is abandoned for the Grechaninoff and for Mussorgsky's mournful Four Walls. These link happily with the spirituals of which there are fewer than you might expect. Interestingly Lawrence Brown sings as a tenor counterpoint in By and Bye.

By November 1947 and the time of the orchestral sessions the dust had settled on the war and these eight tracks are lighter in tone. Mah Lindy Lou is almost Delian in its Florida mangrove moments.

None of the words are printed in the booklet but you do not need them anyway. Robeson enunciates with clarity and with phenomenal breath control. You will not miss a single word. Listen to his secure and sustained deep notes as he sings 'Lord' in the Mendelssohn track.

The tracks are, naturally enough, in mono with most of the piano accompanied songs recorded in the deadly days of 1942. The less embattled and less stentorian songs date from the 1945 and 1947 sessions. Of course Wagon Wheel and Ol' Man River have common patriotic and protest themes. Robeson was in even better voice in November 1947 than in January 1942 - mellow, sincere and well able to carry off with an uncondescending smile the sometimes contrived rhyme scheme in It aint necessarily so.

Consistent with the Masterwork gold standard booklet design is exemplary with finely rendered photographs and high resolution plates of the original record-sleeves. Even listening on headphones background hiss is hardly to be heard and certainly does not intrude.

I certainly recommend this collection as the closest aural shadow to Robeson's soul and beliefs. These songs weave their way through protest, patriotism, comfort, defiance and religion. Treacly emotion finds no home here.
The brief notes from Paul Robeson Jr. and Albert Innaurato in English, French and German.
Track this down before it disappears.


Rob Barnett


 
FULL CONTENTS LISTING


1 Balm in Gilead 2'28
- Spiritual - Harry T. Burleigh, arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/27/42
LEHMAN ENGEL (1910-1982)
2 Chassidic Chant 2'41
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/27/42
IVAN DZERZHINSKY (1909-1978)
3 From Border to Border 2'25
(from "Quiet Flows the Don")
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/27/42
IVAN DZERZHINSKY (1909-1978)
4 Oh, How Proud Our Quiet Don 3'17
(from "Quiet Flows the Don")
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/27/42
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
5 The Lord God of Abraham, 3'07
from "Elijah", Op. 70 Previously unreleased
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/30/42
MARC BLITZSTEIN (1905-1964)
6 The Purest Kind of Guy 3'18
[Joe's Birthday Song, from the opera "No For An Answer"]
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/30/42
EARL ROBINSON (b. 1910)
7 Joe Hill 2'39
- Alfred Hayes, lyrics
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/30/42
ANONYMOUS
8 The Peat-Bog Soldiers 2'24
("Moorsoldaten" - song from a German concentration camp)
- Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/30/42
9 The Four Insurgent Generals 2'11
- Spanish Loyalist Song
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/30/42
ISAAC DONAYEVSKY (1900-1955)
10 Native Land 2'18
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/30/42
11 Song of the Plains 3'04
- Red Army Song - Lev Knipper
(1898-1974), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 1/30/42
ALEXANDER GRETCHANINOFF (1864-1956)
12 Cradle Song 3'49
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 2/2/42
MODEST MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
13 Within Four Walls 3'30
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 2/2/42
14 By an' By 2'26
- Folksong - Harry T. Burleigh, arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 12/28/45
15 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child 2'28
- Folksong - Lawrence Brown, arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 12/28/45
16 John Henry 2'27
- Folksong - Hall Johnson, arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 12/28/45
AVERY ROBINSON (1877-1965)
17 Water Boy 2'32
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Lawrence Brown, Piano
recorded 12/28/45
GEORGE H. CLUTSAM (1866 - 1951)
18 My Curly Headed Baby 2'43
- Normand Lockwood (b. 1906), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/7/47
LILY STRICKLAND (1887-1958)
19 Mah Lindy Lou 3'08
- Normand Lockwood (b. 1906), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/7/47
PETER DEROSE (1900-1953)
20 Wagon Wheels 2'42
- William J. Hill, lyrics, Normand Lockwood, arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/7/47
EARL ROBINSON (b. 1910)
21 The House I Live In 3'08
- Lewis Allan, lyrics - Normand Lockwood (b. 1906), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/7/47
OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN (1846-1919) & JEROME KERN (1885-1945)
22 I Still Suits Me (from "Showboat") 2'32
- Normand Lockwood (b. 1906), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/8/47
OLEY SPEAKS (1874-1948)
23 Sylvia 2'06
- Clinton Scollard (1860-1932), lyrics - Normand Lockwood (b. 1906), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/8/47
OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN (1846-1919) & JEROME KERN (1885-1945)
24 Ol' Man River (from "Showboat") 3'08
- Normand Lockwood (b. 1906), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/8/47
GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
25 It Ain't Necessarily So 2'35
- Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) & Dubose Heyward, lyrics - Normand Lockwood (b. 1906), arr.
Paul Robeson, Baritone
Columbia Concert Orchestra
Emanuel Balaban, Conductor
recorded 11/8/47

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