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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Gordon MYERS (1919 - )
God's Trombones (1960)
Gordon Myers (baritone)
Christine Helfrich (soprano)
Gloriae Dei Cantores
Gloriae Dei Cantores Brass Ensemble
Elizabeth C. Patterson (conductor)
Recorded 1995, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts.
GLORIAE DEI CANTORES GDCD 017 [78.21]



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Gordon Myers is baritone who has appeared in Broadway and off Broadway shows. In addition he has a reputation as a musical humorist as well as being something of a pedagogue and a composer. The music on this CD was written in 1960 as part of his doctoral thesis at Columbia University. The music sets the text of James Weldon Johnson's 'Gods Trombones - Seven Negro Sermons in Verse'. Johnson's text was published in 1927 and has become a classic of American literature. Johnson (1871 - 1938) was the first black admitted to the bar in Florida. He and his composer brother wrote a number of successful Broadway musicals and popular songs in the early 1900s. His text for 'Gods Trombones' was produced as a result of hearing an old-time Negro preacher in Kansas City. Evidently at the time he wrote the poems this style of preaching was fast disappearing.

'God's Trombones' mixes unaccompanied chorus with passages for the solo baritone, sometimes accompanied by the brass and sometimes by the chorus. Obviously, in setting the work the words were paramount for Myers and his setting reflects this. Even the most complex choral passages are laid out so that they rarely obscure the words. It was a shame that the choruses concern for a beautifully blended sound in the opening movement rather obscured the text, but for the remainder of the work their diction is often exemplary.

Much of the choral part is laid out like hymnody or like Anglican Psalm singing. The more developed choral sections have a strong touch of spirituals about them and I did wonder whether the composer should have used real spirituals in order to draw the piece together and give it a more coherent structure. Structure is a major problem. Myers has set the text complete which was perhaps a mistake. Slavish devotion to a text is not necessarily the best way to bring it to life musically. Johnson's rather wordy verse can get in the way of the musical ideas and sometimes an occasional infelicitous phrase can receive over-emphasis.

The bulk of the work is carried by Myers himself as solo baritone. In his prime Myers famously had a fine baritone voice, but by the time he came to record this his voice was well past its best. There is a strong tendency to vibrato when the voice is put under pressure and his voice gets dry and strained in its upper reaches and he sometimes gets a little tired. I think that the recording engineer has boosted the balance in favour of the soloist, which means that the solo part is perfectly audible but tends to falsify the relationship between the soloist and the rather recessed choir.

Myers articulates the text in an admirable manner, though there is a marked contrast between his strong American accent and the rather neutral way that the choir sing. The solo part is written in a form of continuous arioso and parlando. Myers’ performance sometimes hints at Broadway, though whether this really reflects the music or just Myers’ performance background I am not sure. Occasionally hints of Kurt Weill creep in, especially of his music for 'Cry the Beloved Country'.

Unfortunately, for me, the performance never really takes off. Being unfamiliar with the text and having no special attachment to it, this performance seemed to bring nothing to it. I realise that for listeners who are familiar with the text, this straightforward illustrative approach might be helpful. But Johnson's image of the old Negro preacher was rarely called up in these performances. Stories such as the Creation and the Prodigal Son are essentially dramatic and Johnson's verse puts the drama over pretty well (try reading the text out aloud to yourself and see), but in these performances the drama never seems to happen, the music remains perpetually discreetly illustrative.

The choir are exemplary throughout, providing discreet accompaniment to Myers and making the most of what opportunities Myers gives them. The brass group play confidently and tactfully when needed, though they cannot avoid the occasional feeling that their music goes dangerously close to Hovis country.

At over 70 minutes, these pieces feel over long in this rather undramatic performance. I could imagine that these pieces would be ideal for a church choir in search of something unusual for a concert, especially if they have a good baritone soloist at their disposal. But on disc, the music did seem rather stretched to thinly. Though in another performance, I might have retained my interest. For anyone interested in exploring this type of American repertoire, I would highly recommend Aaron Copland's 'In the beginning', which uses similar tools - William Billings, American Psalmody etc. to construct a far more concise, greater work of art.

Robert Hugill



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