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Contact: Opus One Box 604, Greenville, Maine 04441


John Donald ROBB (1892-1989)
Hispanic Folksongs of New Mexico and Art Songs (orchestrated by Ray Jannotta)
Hispanic Folksongs: Cuando por el oriente [2:18]; De la real Jerusalen [4:01]; A la ru [2:03]; Vamos todos a Belen [4:50]; Ofreecimento de los Pastores [9:17]; Sierra Nevada [2:42]; El muchacho alegre [1:51]; Palomita que vienes herida [3:21]; Sandovalito [1:29]
Art Songs: To Electra [1:14]; I am very old tonight [4:19]; Good Night, My Love [2:47]; Tonight My Heart is on the Hill [2:18]; Tears [2:48]; Cradle Song [3:28]
Leslie Umphrey (soprano)
National Polish Radio SO/David Oberg
rec. Poland? circa 2001? DDD
OPUS ONE CD191 [49:38]


It's the early 1940s. One imagines Minneapolis-born John Robb and his daughter driving out to remote New Mexico villages. The car is kitted out with an expensive German wire recorder hitched to the car battery. There are wine bottles clinking at the back. He charms, bribes, entreats and cajoles villager after villager to sing traditional folksongs into his microphone. Some of these songs will have their roots in the Iberian homeland of the Conquistadores and others in autochthonous culture. At home he transcribes the songs. He has just given up practising in New York in international law. He has left the law behind and is now embarked on a career as composer and music academician. In 1942 he was appointed Professor of Music and Chair of the School of Music of the University of New Mexico. Between legal work he has composed and studied with Hindemith, Harris, Parker and Boulanger. His folksong collecting activity was to take him throughout the American South-West as well as to South America and Nepal. In total he collected 3000 songs and dances. The New Mexico songs or a selection of them were published in Robb's 1954 book Hispanic Folk songs of New Mexico. They are available in versions for voice and piano and as here for voice and orchestra. Robb took great satisfaction from his work as ethnomusicologist and deserves to be counted in the company of Vaughan Williams, Moeran, Grainger, Bartók, Kodály and Holmboe.

The first five Hispanic songs here are religious; the remainder secular. Leslie Umphrey who debuted as Susannah in Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah has a darkly umber tone. Cuando por el oriente trembles with devotion while De la real jerusalen is more canorially lissom. As  you may expect, none of these songs is particularly fast and that is perhaps one of their weaknesses as a group.  Vamos todos a Belen (i.e. Bethlehem) is a steady carol and most beautifully performed and recorded. Jannotta's orchestrations are tasteful and allows what I take to be the light of the original to shine through. Ofrecimiento is stately and regal. After such devotional concentration it is a joy to encounter the bright-eyed and good-hearted Sierra Nevada and the other secular songs. Now we encounter an open air atmosphere, the oxygen of hard work in open spaces, a humane tenderness - as in Palomita - and Latino exuberance. These songs would pair well with Copland's Old American Songs. Sandovalito bears the imprint of the vitality of forthright 1940s Americana. This collection would have benefited from more of the Randall Thompson style exhilaration radiated by this song. The art songs set various poets including Herrick (To Electra) and Robb (Goodnight) himself. There is about these songs a slow blooming grandeur and sincerity that makes me want to hear more of them. The I am very old tonight includes a central vocalise recalling Villa-Lobos. Tonight my heart is on the hill and Tears are  narrative unrhymed poems which are easefully set in a manner lying somewhere South of Barber's Knoxville. The lullaby love-song Goodnight is simple and glowingly orchestrated and paced in the sweetest equipoise. Cradle Song sets words by Katherine G Bennitt. Surprisingly it lacks intimacy being set to a tune which is intrinsically bluff and has an incongruous sense of public address rather than private expression.

The orchestrations and arrangements are by Roger Jannotta.

Very full English-only notes are provided complete with sung texts and translations into English. Such a pity that we are given no idea when these songs were written. My guess is the 1940s and 1950s.

Allowing for a dash of vibrato here and there Leslie Umphrey does justice to these fascinating tonal songs. They should appeal to any student of 1940s Americana and to those who rejoice in the orchestral songs of Canteloube and Copland.

Rob Barnett


Contact: Opus One Box 604, Greenville, Maine 04441


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