Florence Quivar sings black music of America
Ride on, King Jesus [2:50]
I am seeking for a city [2:43]
Give me Jesus [3:24]
He’s got the whole world in His hands [2:41]
Honor, honor * [1:58]
I’ve been ’buked * [3:20]
On ma journey [2:14]
Roun’ about de mountain [3:01]
Joshua fit de battle of Jericho [2:14]
In bright mansions above * [2:38]
The Lord’s Prayer [2:47]
I love the name (words by Mayme White Miller) [3:43]
I’m gonter tell |God all o’ my troubles [4:07]
Sit down, servant * [3:16]
Robert MACGIMSEY (1898 - 1979)
Sweet little Jesus boy * [4:53]
Lit’l boy [2:53]
Plenty good room [1:56]
De gospel train [1:41]
Witness [3:00]
Hold on! [3:07]
Here’s one [4:07]
His name so sweet * [2:29]
Ride on, Jesus [1:54]
Florence Quivar (mezzo)
Larry Woodward (piano); on tracks indicated* - The Boys’ Choir of Harlem/Dr. Walter Turnbull; Joseph Joubert (piano)
rec. no details of date or location given apart from (p) 1990
EMI CLASSICS 9671382 [67:03]

This is a straight reissue of an American EMI/Angel disc originally recorded in 1990. EMI seem to be content to rehash their back-catalogue repackaging discs with minimal (though informative) liner-notes and information and selling them at mid to low price. All too often I feel this pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap philosophy does neither the performers nor the repertoire few favours. And so it is here - of its type I think this is one of the finest discs I have heard but one that might well slip under the radar of most collectors because of the anonymity of its presentation.

This is what it is - a classically trained singer singing a programme of essentially simple arrangements of Spirituals. Stop reading now if that does not push your buttons because if you find any element of that cross-over genre unappealing nothing here will change your mind. However, if you are open to this often-visited concept you should try this disc. As part of the background for this review I was checking Florence Quivar’s discography. I was surprised that there is not more of it - for sure she has recorded the major oratorios and Mahler symphonies as well as key Verdi but somehow I was expecting to see more - six operas and sixteen choral/symphonic recordings in eighteen years is not a case of being sung out in the studio! Most surprisingly, to the point I almost doubt whether the source on the net I found is correct, this album is listed as her only solo recital. My first encounter with her voice was as Serena on the justly famous Decca/Maazel/Cleveland complete Porgy and Bess. She sang there with the same fiery intensity and degree of identification that she brings to these Spirituals and for my money hers are interpretations that might have been equalled on disc but have not been surpassed.

Arrangements such as these occupy an odd middle ground. At the time of their making these arrangements were vehicles to bring the music of black America into a more general public eye. Indeed several of those performed here are by Roland Hayes - the first black male soloist to have an international reputation according to the liner-notes. Hayes prepared them primarily for his own concertising use. However, as with all folk-originated material arranged for the concert hall, there is a smoothing of edges, a finessing of perceived weaknesses that I feel ultimately detracts from the communicative power of the original. When that ‘softening’ is allied to a performer - another aesthetic remove from the original - the distortion is complete. So all credit then to Quivar that for all the evident training and power of her considerable voice what you take first and foremost is her burning conviction and engagement with the songs. This is instantly apparent from the very opening of track 1 Ride on, King Jesus. Quivar’s superbly controlled, vibrant and wide-ranging voice is the perfect instrument for this style of treatment. All too often classical singers can impose an interpretation on essentially simple material like a gooey icing on a cake. Phrasing can become mannered and vocal effects spring from the head and not the heart. I see from an online biography that Quivar’s mother was a vocal teacher in Philadelphia and ran a Gospel choir called the ‘Harmonic Choraliers’. Clearly Quivar learnt these songs quite literally at her mother’s knee - and it sounds like it. She intuitively knows when to bend into a note, when to pare away the vibrato and when to put the expressive pedal flat to the floor. It really is communicative singing of the very highest order. There is a risk of a certain sameness implicit in the repertoire. This disc minimises that by including the Boy’s Choir of Harlem on six of the twenty-three tracks as well as including a pair of original songs in the midst of the traditional spirituals. The choir’s function is very much an accompanying one but once again they occupy the idiom so comfortably and idiomatically that the result is profoundly touching. I particularly like Robert MacGimsey’s Sweet Little Jesus boy (track 15). Although an original song it is very much in the spiritual idiom and the simplicity of the choir’s accompaniment in the second verse allied to a very basic chordal piano part makes the impact of the message all the more. Given that EMI have provided no texts it is fortunate that Quivar’s - and indeed the choir’s - diction is so clear. The 1990 recording is beautifully balanced and has caught Quivar’s voice in magnificent condition. No dates or venues are given - it doesn’t sound like a church acoustic but there is a pleasing warmth to the voices. Two pianists share the accompanist’s duty and both are as effective as their limited parts permit. Again this style of arranging is not about equal partners but instead providing a platform from which the voice can perform. Curiously, not all of the absolute favourite spirituals are here but I enjoy that mix of familiar and - to me at least - less well known. Everyone coming to this disc will have personal favourites as well as tracks they like less. Because I have never found this setting of The Lord’s Prayer (track 11) or He’s got the whole world in His hands (track 4) appealing even Quivar cannot bring me back to the path of righteousness. Conversely Witness (track 19) or the opening title track are absolute knock-outs. Mentioning Witness - for a broader, more diverse group of treatments of spirituals I would guide readers to a long-deleted Collins Classics disc entitled Witness: Volume 1 - Spirituals & Gospels performed by Philip Brunelle and his Plymouth Music Series Ensemble and Moore by Four. The latter are a closer harmony group who add a jazzier feel to some of the arrangements including a stunning Jesus Lover of my Soul. However, even they cannot match Quivar for revivalist fervour or the utter ‘rightness’ of her sound.

This is a superb disc both as a document of a magnificent singer at her considerable peak and as a sincere expression of Christian faith.

Nick Barnard