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Ricky Ian GORDON (b.1956)
Silver Rain
Heaven [1:20]
In Time of Silver Rain [2:48]
Harlem Night Song [2:08]
Dream Variations [2:04]
Stars [5:01]
Love Song For Antonia [3:26]
Port Town [1:52]
Daybreak in Alabama [3:30]
Dreams/Feet o Jesus [5:50]
Song For a Dark Girl [2:50]
Litany [5:45]
Genius Child; a cycle of Ten Songs
Winter Moon [1:46]
Genius Child 1:36]
Kid In The Park [2:54]
To Be Somebody [2:11]
Troubled Woman [2:01]
Strange Hurt [2:30]
Prayer [5:02]
Border Line [3:09]
My People [3:35]
Joy [2:41]
Nicole Cabell (soprano): Ricky Ian Gordon (piano)
rec. September 2011, Blue Griffin’s Studio, The Ballroom

Ricky Ian Gordon’s settings of Langston Hughes’s poems seem to present some problems. Firstly, Hughes’s poems are largely variable. Second, they seem in any case to aspire to the condition of a readymade lyric. Third, this should therefore present no impediment since some composers (Elgar) seem famously inspired by mediocre poetry.
Indeed, Gordon’s music meets the frequently weightless poems head-on, extracting nuance after nuance. His piano pointing is full of suggestive subtlety. He suggests a small group Jazz band in the left hand in Harlem Night Song where ‘swing’ is the operative word. In Dream Variations Hughes fatuously plays upon white day and black night in a colour-conscious piece of whimsy that might have passed muster in Harlem in 1930 but doesn’t now. Gordon responds with show tune-like music that might suggest the poem’s fantasy feelings. The problem with Hughes is the weight of Harlem Renaissance he has had to bear, which is hardly his responsibility, but it has encouraged composers to highfalutin responses. Gordon is largely guiltless of these and he responds well to the lustiness of Port Town or to the mordant Gospel Blues of Song for Dark Girl, a Strange Fruit topic.
The ten song cycle Genius Child leaves a mixed impression. There is some acute word setting, not least the reference to the piano in To Be Somebody which encourages the accompaniment. Strange Hurt has a habanera like rhythm; the drifting piano harmonies in My People are effective. Joy again references the show tune spirit of which Gordon is, at times, arguably too fond.
So much for the message. The messenger, with the composer at the piano, is soprano Nicole Cabell, winner of the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. And there, alas, we must leave things. Cabell seems wholly unsuited to these songs. Her responses are generalised and operatic; her diction can be mushy; her tone is hard and unyielding; and there’s a strange oscillation in her vibrato. I’ve heard Cabell before on disc and she sounded then like a good singer, so I can only think that this is a case of a singer not suiting the song, and vice versa.
Jonathan Woolf