American Anthem
Shenandoah (arr. Lee Musiker) [2:58]
Jay GORNEY (1894-1990)
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1932) [3:30]
Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Early in the Morning (1954) [1:38]
The Lordly Hudson (1947) [2:07]
Gene SCHEER (b. 1958)
At Howard Hawks' House (piano arr. Lee Musiker) [2:34]
Holding Each Other (piano arr. Lee Musiker) [3:34]
John Jacob NILES (1892-1980)
The Lass from the Low Countree [3:09]
John MUSTO (b. 1954)
Recuerdo (1988) [4:22]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Nocturne (1940) [4:00]
Sure on this shining night (1938) [2:14]
William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Fur (Murray the Furrier) (1977-1985) [2:25]
Over the Piano (1977-1985) [3:05]
Black Max (As Told by the Kooning Boys) (1977-1985) [2:56]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Slugging a Vampire (1902) [0:24]
Two Little Flowers (and dedicated to them) (1921) [1:11]
General William Booth Enters Into Heaven (1914) [5:09]
Lee HOIBY (b. 1926)
The Lamb (1987) [3:04]
I wonder as I wander (Appalachian Carol) (arr. John Jacob Niles & Henry Horton) [2:52]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
At the River (1952) [3:07]
Long Time Ago (1950) [2:38]
Gene SCHEER (b. 1958)
Lean Away (arr. Andrew Thomas) [4:53]
American Anthem (arr. Lee Musiker) [3:56]
Nathan Gunn (baritone), Kevin Murphy (piano)
rec. 1998, St. Michael's Church, Highgate, London. Song texts not included
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 same name.
Dan Morgan
I’m surprised EMI have chosen to reissue this so soon ... see Full Review