To quote, including at least one if not two typos, the composer behind this mélange, Joseph Horowitz, ‘In musical parlance, the term “melodrama” refers to a composition mating music with the spoken work’.
Horowitz has opted to select the Prologue and half a dozen chapters from Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha
. He asserts that during a sojourn in New York in the early 1890s Dvořák, who had already read the poem in a Czech translation, hoped to compose either an opera or at least a cantata on the subject. This melodrama is a speculative attempt at what such a work might have sounded like without in any way arguing the composer’s intent.
Some music by either Horowitz or conductor Angel Gil-Ordóńez has been added to bind it all together as well as music from Dvořák’s Violin Sonatina, a couple of Humoresques — one of them the familiar graceful one in G flat — and the original piano version of his American Suite; unfortunately not Dvořák’s own version for orchestra. All three, in complete form, are then included as fillers.
Have the CD booklet to hand when listening, if only to follow the text and catch the largely unfamiliar names of the various characters featured in the Song
. Crucially the balance between music and ‘spoken word’ is the weakness of this disc and neither should be a distraction from the other. While Kevin Deas has an impressive voice, the recording ambience is over-resonant and too frequently words are lost when pitted against the 54-piece orchestra which is playing large segments of Dvořák’s New World
Symphony or the vocal setting of its second movement by the composer’s pupil, William Arms Fisher (‘Going Home’).
Horowitz credits Dvořák with ‘largely inspiring the Indianist movement’, paving the way for its spearheading by the ‘insufficiently remembered Arthur Farwell’, who had a ‘lifelong reverence for the Native American’ (Piano Music Vol.1
~~ The Gods of the Mountains
). Best of his output is the a cappella
version of ‘Pawnee Horses’, given an idiomatically bright performance by the University of Texas Chamber Singers.
The idea behind the disc is an interesting concept but distinctive performances from violinist Zhou Qian accompanied by Edmund Battersby and solo pianist Benjamin Pasternack only go to show that the melodrama will not displace Coleridge-Taylor’s Song of Hiawatha
from the choral repertoire, let alone Dvořák’s evergreen New World