This collection first appeared in EMI’s Debut series – review
– and now resurfaces as part of their American Classics series.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly some labels recycle
old material, a phenomenon that seems to affect vocal discs
more than most. Certainly Nathan Gunn, the boy from South Bend,
Indiana, has done good. He has already sung the roles of Billy
in Billy Budd, Papageno in The Magic Flute and
Figaro in The Barber of Seville, so I was expecting a
voice of some variety and strength, perhaps in the same class
as Gerald Finley, the baritone who impressed me so much in Ives’s
Romanzo di Central Park (Hyperion CDA 67644).
But no. The problems start with Shenandoah, where I had
to crank up the volume before Gunn’s voice snapped into some
kind of focus. More worrying is his rather lachrymose delivery
– an expressive overload, if you like – and strange pronunciation.
Add to that a warm but reticent piano sound and the result is
underwhelming. And listening to Gorney’s Depression-era classic,
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? I realised that Gunn’s
voice seems to vary between reasonably loud and unreasonably
soft, but beyond that he sounds distinctly uncomfortable. That
might matter less if there were more colour and nuance in the
voice. But no.
Curious pronunciation crops up in the Rorem setting of Early
One Morning – café au lait sounds especially weird – and
I found I was becoming increasingly irritated by Gunn’s generalised
phrasing. Insouciance is all very well, but not when it’s used
to cover up poor technique. And where is the weight and gravitas
in Lordly Hudson, where the final line ‘Home! Home!’
confirms that Gunn’s ‘comfort zone’ is very narrow indeed.
He seems a little more convivial in the first – suitably jazzy
– Scheer setting, At Howard Hawks’ House, but
over-emotes in Holding Each Other. Diction is a problem
and, as expected, the final line of the latter is all but inaudible.
The quieter moments of Kentucky balladeer John Jacob Niles’s
Lass from the Low Countree are similarly afflicted, the
leaps in Musto’s Recuerdo hard on a voice that has little
or nothing in reserve. Barber’s gorgeous Nocturne is
full of light and shade, which Gunn manages to convey reasonably
well, but overall there’s little magic here. The same is true
of Sure on this shining night, although pianist
Kevin Murphy makes up for that with some lovely, nuanced playing.
This is certainly an eclectic programme, ranging from simple
ballads and folk songs to more up-tempo cabaret numbers. Three
of the latter, by William Bolcom, are most enjoyable, but Gunn
just isn’t chameleon enough to adapt to these different styles.
Murphy is more successful, though, especially in the jaunty
rhythms of Black Max. And of the three Ives settings
Gunn is most comfortable – and most eloquent – in Two Little
Flowers, where he sounds surprisingly tender. Sadly, though,
he opts for bluster rather than revivalist fervour in General
William Booth Enters Into Heaven. That said, his
barked ‘Hallelujahs!’ do belong more to the parade ground than
to the pulpit, which is entirely appropriate in this context.
Lee Hoiby’s setting of Blake’s The Lamb is particularly
poignant and is probably one of the most satisfying tracks here,
playing as it does to Gunn’s more secure middle and lower range.
A lovely piece and one I’d like to hear from someone like Finley.
As for the Copland, I know these from Sir Willard White’s Chandos
collection of spirituals and Old American Songs (CHAN
8960). Gunn phrases more sensitively here, but in such company
one notices anew that his baritone is very light indeed. Not
a hanging offence, but it does mean that he lacks the extra
expressive range and colour of a bigger voice like White’s.
Still, he sings these songs with obvious affection and plenty
of feeling. And while we’re in comparative mode how about contrasting
Copland’s exquisite scores with the more conventional writing
in Scheer’s American Anthem? It’s a dull piece, rendered
even less interesting by the kind of ‘soft focus’ delivery that
blights so much of what Gunn does here.
To be fair, this recording is 12 years old and Gunn’s voice
has probably changed in all sorts of ways since then. But given
that this 1998 debut wasn’t particularly auspicious in the first
place I’m surprised EMI have chosen to reissue it so soon. Sadly
that seems to be the way with singers – DG have done the same
with Anna Netrebko – and I do wonder if there’s method in this
madness. As usual with cheaper EMI discs the booklet is very
low rent and you’ll have to search online for the lyrics. In
general, their American Classics are not a patch on Naxos’s
much better packaged – and more adventurous – series of the
see review of the original
release by Christopher Howell