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Dreamer. A Portrait of Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
My People* [0’22"]
Robert OWENS (b. 1929): "Heart" from Heart on the Wall (1968?) [1’34"]
John MUSTO (b. 1954): "Island" from Shadow of the Blues [1’31"]
The Weary Blues* [2’10"]
John MUSTO: "Litany" from Shadow of the Blues [3’26"]
William Grant STILL (1895-1978): "A Black Pierrot" from Songs of Separation [2’05"]
Hale SMITH (b. 1925): "March Moon" from Beyond the Rim of Day (1950) [2’25"]
Negro* [1’02"]
Margaret BONDS (1913-1972): The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1935) [4’24"]
Ricky Ian GORDON (b. 1958): "My People" from Genius Child [3’28"]
Florence PRICE (1888-1953): Song to the Dark Virgin [2’08"]
Evil* [0’13"]
Howard SWANSON (b. 1907): Joy [0’51"]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950): "Lonely House" from Street Scene (1946) [3’48"]
Margaret BONDS: "Minstrel Man" from Three Dream Portraits (1932) [2’15"]
Sunday Morning Prophecy* [1’11"]
Harriette DAVISON (1923-1978): "In Time of Silver Rain" from Fields of Wonder (1947) [1’16"]
Jean BERGER (b. 1909): "Carolina Cabin" from Four Songs of Langston Hughes (1951) [2’08"]
Madam and the Census Taker* [0’50"]
Harry T. BURLEIGH: Lovely, Dark and Lonely One (1934) [2’02"]
Sylvester’s Dying Bed* [1’16"]
Eric SANTOS: Dreamer** (2000) [24’37"]
Still Here* [0’35"]
Darryl Taylor (tenor)
Maria Corley (piano)
*William Warfield (speaker)
** Eric Santos (piano); Patricia Terry-Ross (harp); Sandy Nordahl (percussion)
Recorded at the studios of WFMT Radio, Chicago 23 July 2001 and at Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, Great Hall, 18-21 December 2001

This is an interesting collection recorded to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the African American poet, Langston Hughes.

Born in Missouri, Hughes had a varied artistic life. He was one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Harlem Renaissance’ of the late 1920s Subsequently, his political beliefs veered sharply to the left, a move that was reflected in the style and content of his poetry. As can be seen from this anthology, his verse inspired many composers but, interestingly, he himself began to write lyrics in the 1940s. Perhaps his best known effort was the piece with which he made his breakthrough in the genre, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene – the marvellous, evocative song Lonely House is included here, I’m glad to see. Though his words continued to provide inspiration for composers of art songs and concert works Hughes’ own interests towards the end of his career lay in the fields of jazz, blues and, eventually, gospel music.

With the exception of Weill, the only other composer represented here whose music I’d heard previously is William Grant Still. The music of the remaining composers covers quite a range of styles so the programme is nicely varied. However, it was a good idea to intersperse the songs with recitations of a few of Hughes’ poems. It was an inspired idea to choose the distinguished American baritone, William Warfield as narrator. He uses his wonderfully rich, molasses voice to marvellous effect and the wide range of colour, pitch and pacing that he employs could only come from a singer, and a fine one at that. Indeed, we get a snatch of his singing voice during his reading of The Weary Blues (track 4)

The remainder of the programme is sung by the American tenor, Darryl Taylor. To judge by the timbre of his voice I’d say he’s relatively young (though he has a lengthy c.v.) and I infer from his biography that he is African American. He seems perfectly in tune with the sentiments and style of Hughes’ ideas and he has made an adroit choice of songs since, for the most part, they suit his fairly light and plangent voice well. His is a pleasing sound and he sings with commitment and sensitivity. For most of his programme he is ably supported by the Jamaican pianist, Maria Corley.

To be honest I don’t think that any of the composers represented here sound like major figures. I heard nothing on this disc to match the songs of the two American masters of the genre, Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. (Margaret Bonds was one of Rorem’s early teachers.) However, there is much to entertain in the music and most of the songs are well crafted and responsive to the texts. I enjoyed Harry Burleigh’s largely wistful song (track 20) and was impressed by Robert Owens’ impassioned contribution (track 2). In this latter item a long, lyrical and wide-ranging vocal line is given urgency and impetus by a piano accompaniment that is constantly moving. John Musto’s Litany (track 5) has a rather intense and grave beauty and the song by Still (track 6) is pretty dramatic – this little piece is stronger in character than the music of Still’s that I’ve previously heard. The Negro Speaks of Rivers (track 9) is a dark, quite powerful piece and though Florence Price’s offering is fairly conventional (track 11) it possesses an innocent and open-hearted lyricism that I found rather appealing.

Just over one third of the disc is given over to Dreamer, a cycle of five Hughes poems (two more are read by the singer), commissioned by Darryl Taylor from Eric Santos. This was, apparently, Santos’ first composition for voice. The accompaniment is rather unusual; as well as a piano a harp and, occasionally, a limited amount of percussion add some colour. The first song, Sandman (track 22) consists for the most part of long, undulating lines for the singer against a "minimalist", pulsing accompaniment. This song segues into the spoken Birth in which the recitation is punctuated by occasional low chords, which give a rather spooky effect. Bound No’th Blues (track 23) is an impassioned blues setting for the singer against, for the most part, a pounding piano accompaniment (the harp joins in for the slow middle section.) To Artina (track 24) is an intense and atmospheric love song. Down where I am (track 25) is stronger meat. Described as a "dark tough blues" the setting lives up to that description. Those who like modern jazz may enjoy it; I didn’t. In particular I found the relentless, percussive piano chords a trial and I also felt that the wordless blues improvisation with which the singer ends the song was a gesture that didn’t really come off. We’re back to rippling, minimalist accompaniment for the final song, Dream Keeper.

My view of this cycle is that it is let down by the accompaniment, which doesn’t, to my ears, complement and enhance the singer’s part, as it should. The harp part is really the most interesting aspect of the accompaniment but for the most part it plays second fiddle to a rather unimaginative piano line. Taylor sings with real commitment and intensity, sounding as if he believes in every note. However, in the last analysis I feel that the invention in this work is spread rather too thinly and it’s a pity that it occupies so much of the CD. I’m sure other listeners will respond more positively but I doubt I shall be returning to this part of the CD very often.

The recorded sound is good and there’s a useful and informative note. Naxos are usually pretty good at providing texts so I presume that copyright issues have prevented the inclusion of texts on this occasion. That’s a pity, for although Taylor sings very clearly the idiom is not always straightforward, especially for non-American listeners and the provision of texts would certainly aid appreciation.

This is an unusual and interesting release. At the price collectors with an interest in twentieth century musical Americana can safely indulge their curiosity.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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