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William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience [137’11"]
Christine Brewer, Measha Brueggergosman, Ilana Davidson, Linda Hohenfeld, Carmen Pelton (sopranos); Joan Morris (mezzo soprano); Marietta Simpson (contralto); Thomas Young (tenor); Nmon Ford (baritone); Nathan Lee Graham (speaker/vocals); Tommy Morgan (harmonica); Peter "Madcat" Ruth (Harmonica and vocals); Jeremy Kittel (fiddle); Contemporary Directions Ensemble; University of Michigan Musical Society Choral Union; University of Michigan Chamber Choir;
University of Michigan University Choir; University of Michigan Orpheus Singers; Michigan State University Children’s Choir; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Recorded live 8 April 2004 at Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Michigan DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559216-18 [3 CDs: 51’29" + 43’00" + 43’42"]

 

There are a few things that the listener needs to know about this work before listening.

In the first place, as the composer writes in one of two essays that he has contributed to the booklet, he conceived an ambition to set these poems of Blake a very long time ago, when he was seventeen to be precise. A few parts of the current work were written as long ago as 1956 though most of the music was composed in 1973-4 and again between 1979 and 1982. These dates are significant for it was only after taking up a teaching post at the University of Michigan in 1973 that Bolcom had sufficient time to devote to this composition and bring his long-cherished project to fruition.

And the University of Michigan connection is the second important fact. A strong impetus behind the way in which the piece evolved was Bolcom’s desire to write a piece that could involve as many members of the University’s music department as possible. That accounts for the huge forces required to perform Songs of Innocence and of Experience (some 450 performers participated in the concert that these CDs commemorate). To some extent this also accounts for the variety of musical styles on show here for Bolcom includes jazz and rock musicians, among others, in his line-up.

However, the stylistic diversity of the work owes even more to a crucial issue. As Bolcom writes "The Blakean principle of contraries … would also dominate my approach to the work, particularly in matters of style." He goes on to say that research by Blake scholars confirmed his suspicion that "at every point Blake used his whole culture, past and present, highbrow and vernacular, as sources for his many poetic styles." As a consequence, throughout Blake’s collection of poems "exercises in elegant Drydenesque diction are placed cheek by jowl with ballads that could have come from one of the "songsters" of his day." Bolcom has therefore taken it as a stylistic imperative that he should faithfully mirror this approach in setting the poems to music. This last point is fundamental, I think, to an understanding of what William Bolcom is about here. What we have is a highly eclectic composition but there is a purpose to the eclecticism, though I must admit that as a matter of subjective taste I’m not entirely comfortable with some of the results.

Setting the forty-seven poems that comprise Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which, for ease of reference I’m going to refer to from now on simply as Songs) is, in itself, a huge challenge. The poems are mainly short and in fact there are only two settings in the whole work that last for longer than five minutes. When one adds in a further seven short movements for orchestra alone and one wordless piece for chorus and orchestra we have no less that fifty-five separate short movements. This in itself raises the danger of "bittiness," a danger that’s magnified by Bolcom’s conscious decision to write in a variety of musical styles. I’m afraid that this danger is not overcome: in my view one of the work’s failings is that it is too fragmentary.

I think perhaps Songs would have been less fragmentary and would have hung together better had Bolcom not written in so many musical styles. There’s much fine and interesting music in Songs. The trouble is that the excellent music sits cheek by jowl with some settings that, quite frankly, strike me as almost banal. Perhaps the most jarring such example comes very early on. The third poem in Songs of Innocence (CD 1, track 3) is ‘The Lamb’ (how nice to hear it in a setting other than the lovely but ubiquitous one by John Tavener!). Bolcom’s version is a setting for solo soprano and orchestra. The compass of the vocal line is extremely wide-ranging and has a Schoenbergian feel to it. Immediately that has finished, however, ‘The Shepherd’ is introduced by a gentle country and western-style fiddle, accompanied by guitar and harmonica. The vocals are provided by Peter "Madcat" Ruth, in what, thankfully, is his only appearance in the piece. I’m sure his off-the-note vocal style is authentic but it’s not for me, I’m afraid, and though I assume that Bolcom is very deliberately employing a naïve style in this number I don’t feel that the setting does justice to Blake’s gentle pastoralism and the stylistic juxtaposition with the preceding setting is too great a jump.

It seems to me that Songs of Experience Part III (CD 3, tracks 11 to 17) illustrates well both the strengths and the weaknesses of the work and, indeed, of the performance. The first poem, ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ is a short, spiky setting for solo tenor and orchestra. This is stimulating though the tone of the soloist, Thomas Young, is too unvaried and rather uningratiating. This is followed by ‘The Little Vagabond’, in which the soloist is Bolcom’s wife, Joan Morris. The music is in what sounds to me like a cross between country-and-western and cabaret. I’m sorry, but for me this just doesn’t work at all. In fact I feel the music diminishes Blake’s words. But then immediately after that we hear ‘Holy Thursday’. The contrast with the preceding number could not be greater. Indeed, it’s almost painful. This is dignified, eloquent music and it’s movingly sung by soprano soloist, Carmen Pelton. When Bolcom is in this vein he is superb.

That’s followed by ‘A Poison Tree’, which is recited by Nathan Lee Graham in an affected, overdone style that I find unappealing. Next we hear ‘The Angel’, in which soprano Ilana Davidson is required to sing a demandingly high tessitura. Unfortunately, despite Miss Davidson’s valiant efforts the result sounds a little ugly, due to the lie of the music, and this is a great pity since Blake’s words are anything but ugly. But yet again we have an immediate contrast in the shape of ‘The Sick Rose’. Bolcom gives this a slow, intense treatment. The setting makes its effect through economy of means, both in the solo line (contralto Marietta Simpson) and in the accompaniment. This seems to me to be an extremely successful setting, which is beautifully responsive to the text and, indeed, enhances it. Miss Simpson’s fine singing is a pleasure to hear. The final piece in the sequence is ‘To Tizrah’. This is a most expressive chorus with a powerful orchestral accompaniment. I love the way that after all the power Bolcom closes the setting quietly. However, there’s a surprise at the very end. After the music has finished Nathan Lee Graham speaks the words "It is raised a spirit and body." I’m not sure where these words come from for they appear neither in the text that is printed in the Naxos booklet nor in another edition of the poem that I looked up. I’m sure there’s a valid artistic reason for the inclusion of the words (just as I know there’s a valid artistic reason for everything in Songs) but it’s a puzzling addition and one that fails to quite come off.

I’ve discussed this section of the work in some detail because it sums up my frustration with Songs. There’s so much in the piece that is good and much else that interests me even if it doesn’t quite appeal. But there are points in the score that jar and unfortunately these occur too often for me to "buy into" the work without reservation.

What of the performance? Well, there’s a large array of soloists. Most of these are good though I find Thomas Young’s tone rather hard and he seems to sing at only one volume. I can’t believe that Bolcom doesn’t ask his tenor for light and shade since all the other soloists provide it. Nathan Lee Graham is also an acquired taste. I do not care at all for his style of recitation. His singing is variable but at his best, such as the Big Band rock number, ‘London’ (CD 3, track 11), which I think works surprisingly well, he’s very effective. Most of the female soloists do well though, at the risk of seeming ungallant, it seems to me as if the recording has come a little too late in Joan Morris’s career. She sings her husband’s music with genuine feeling but the vocal presence and breath control now seem much diminished.

There are two absolutely outstanding soloists. Christine Brewer, as you might expect, is magnificent and it does seem a shame that she only has two solos, lasting only some ten minutes in total. The real find of the set, however, is baritone Nmon Ford, a singer who was new to me. His first appearance, in ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’ (CD 2, track 2), alerts us at once to the presence of a special singer. He has a splendid voice, which he uses to project this fine number magnetically. This is an imposing song, which is enhanced greatly by Ford’s presence and intelligence. Later Miss Brewer and Mr Ford sing ‘A Little Girl Lost’ together (CD 3, track 8). Most of the number is sung (very well) by Christine Brewer but the two singers combine to excellent effect for the final stanza, duetting dramatically.

There’s a considerable amount for the various choirs to do and the performances of all the choral numbers are first class. There’s abundant light and shade in the singing, which is also splendidly disciplined, whether the full choirs are involved or just a smaller group. The choristers can recite as well as sing. The famous ‘The Tyger’ is spoken in unison (and it’s all marvellously together) by the huge choir. The first four verses are thrillingly recited over an accompaniment of powerful drumming before other instruments are added for the last two verses. This is a very original and exciting way to treat the poem. And how daring, too, since the slightest imprecision on the part of the singers would sound even more exposed than if they were singing. Top marks to the choirs for this performance and, indeed, for their singing throughout the work.

The instrumentalists also do Bolcom’s music proud. I’m sure it helped enormously to have a conductor of Leonard Slatkin’s experience and ability on the podium. There’s just as much polish and commitment in the playing as there is in the choral singing.

The engineers have done well to capture this vast ensemble in good, realistic sound. The booklet, which is in English only, is very comprehensive and includes the full texts of all the poems.

I’m truly sorry that I have reservations about this uneven work. It’s an ambitious composition, which contains much that is entertaining and rewarding. In the end, however, I suspect it is just a bit too ambitious and therein lies the trouble. However, mine is very much a subjective response and other listeners may well have a different view, not least about the eclectic nature of the music. And certainly the piece has been well served by the performers by any objective standards. It’s unlikely that it will be recorded again so admirers of William Bolcom should take full advantage of the enterprise that Naxos have shown in making it available

John Quinn

see also review by Rob Barnett

comments received

It is very interesting indeed to read John Quinn's reflections, both informed and honest as they are, on Bolcom's - what? Oratorio? Song cycle? Phantasmagoria? As John points out, some will take opposing views, as Rob Barnett does in his more unqualifiedly positive review. I myself find Joan Morris remarkable in her earthy presentation of the text, even if her singing does not quite conform to bel canto requirements; Nathan Lee Graham's performance of "Poison Tree" in particular strikes me as powerful and not a little scary. I actually appreciated Ilana Davidson's expressionist coloratura more than Christine Brewer's strained high notes in the Bergian "Earth's answer". And so on. If I may explain one point: John says >>After the music has finished Nathan Lee Graham speaks the words "It is raised a spirit and body." I'm not sure where these words come from for they appear neither in the text that is printed in the Naxos booklet nor in another edition of the poem that I looked up.<< The reason for that is probably the same as the reason why authors of the booklet have omitted the words in question: they accompany the image Blake made to accompany the poem (a relatively late addition to *The Songs of Innocence & of Experience*) - thus: "It is Raised/A Spiritual Body" under the picture, which can be seen online by going to the following : http://www.blakearchive.org/cgi-bin/nph-1965/blake/erdman/erd/
Not all editions of Blake - unfortunately - include the engravings.

Martin Walker

 



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