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Dreamer. A portrait of Langston Hughes
Robert OWENS (b 1925)

Heart from Heart on the Wall
John MUSTO (b 1954)

Island from Shadow of the Blues
Litany from Shadow of the Blues
William GRANT STILL (1895-1978)

A Black Pierrot from Songs of Separation
Hale SMITH (b 1925)

March Moon from Beyond the Rim of Day
Margaret BONDS (1913-1972)

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Minstrel Man from Three Dream Portraits
Ricky Ian GORDON

My People from Genius Child
Florence PRICE (1888-1953)

Song to the Dark Virgin
Howard SWANSON (1907-1978)

Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)

Lonely House from Street Scene
Harriette DAVISON (1923-1978)

In Time of Silver Rain from Fields of Wonder
Jean BERGER (b 1909)

Carolina Cabin from Four Songs of Langston Hughes
Harry T BURLEIGH (1866-1949)

Lovely, Dark and Lonely One

Dreamer *
Poetry Readings by William Warfield, narrator

My People
The Weary Blues
Sunday Morning Prophecy
Madam and the Census Taker
Sylvester’s Dying Bed
Still Here
Darryl Taylor (tenor)
Maria Corley (piano)
Erik Santos, Patricia Terry Ross (harp) and Sandy Nordahl *

Langston Hughes was one of the first black writers to support himself solely by writing. Commentator, novelist, poet and later librettist he was at the fulcrum of the Harlem Renaissance, though he’d actually been born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. Like Paul Robeson the 1930s saw him drifting ever Eastwards politically and he spent a year in the Soviet Union; his social position was unflinching though and he returned to America before the war and unhesitatingly supported the American war effort. Gradually his literary work assumed a more stage-orientated trajectory and he worked with Kurt Weill on Street Scene (of which there’s an example on this disc) and he collaborated on gospel inspired oratorios. He remained an important example and a figure of inspiration and encouragement and one to whom this disc pays homage. Included are contemporaries of Hughes who set his verse and much younger composers who have been inspired by them. A look at the head note shows that they range from Dvořák-associate Harry T Burleigh and the eminent William Grant Still to our contemporaries.

Naturally the collection is inherently uneven in tone but is interspersed by readings declaimed by William Warfield with great reserves of identification. It might seem foolish in the extreme to prefer his readings to some of the music but so be it; I do. The way he sings the Weary Blues is a thing to hear. This must have been one of the last recordings he made, at 81, in 2001 and it’s an eloquent tribute to his personality with that famed bass-baritone proving just as adept at poetics as it had proved to be on stage. Of the composers Robert Owens strikes a rather Francophile note in his contribution. Grant Still is in European Art Song mode in A Black Pierrot, which despite the potential drama of the verse, stubbornly refuses to do anything very notable. I liked rather more Margaret Bonds’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers. She studied at Julliard with Roy Harris and was later to become one of Ned Rorem’s teachers and proves herself to be an acute setter with a wide range of influences on which to draw. The appositely black cadences inform this sensitive setting and the piano writing (she was a pianist) is idiomatic and clever. Ricky Ian Gordon writes something of a show tune out of My People taxing Darryl Taylor’s tenor up high and this is juxtaposed with Florence Price’s very parlour-cosy Song to the Dark Virgin.

Elsewhere Weill shines brightly and the very cosmopolitan setting by Harriette Davison of Hughes’ very cosmopolitan poem In Time of Silver Rain feels just about right. Burleigh’s one setting is characteristically affecting and by far the longest contribution comes in Erik Santos’ Dreamer, a setting of five of Hughes’ poems. Premiered in 2001 there’s plenty of versatility and walking bass, also spoken lines of text accompanied by harp - dramatic and theatrical. There are gospel interjections, and some torch song vocalising over swinging high hat percussion. There’s also some melismatic vocalising over calmly rippling accompaniment sung way up high.

The notes are text-less which, given the still relatively obscure corner Hughes occupies and which this disc is attempting to address, is a real pity. And the layout is quite poorly designed. Otherwise a rather odd disc that never quite gets to grips with its ostensible function but which does liberate some worthwhile music.

Jonathan Woolf

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