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Michael STIMPSON (b. 1948)
Incidental Music from Jesse Owens [10:42]
Songs from Jesse Owens [35:02]
Preludes in Our Time [19:57]
Abigail Kelly (soprano)
Johnny Herford (baritone)
Megumi Fujita (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Stuart Stratford
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 11 February 2014 (Incidental Music); Royal College of Music, London, 8 June 2014 (Songs and Preludes)
STONE RECORDS 5060192780659 [65:41]

At the end of my review of Michael Stimpson’s Dylan and The Drowning of Capel Celyn I expressed the hope that I would be able to hear the Philharmonia’s recording of music from his opera Jesse Owens, which at the time was already ‘in the can’. Well, my chance has come, and I’m glad it has. Jesse Owens is a full-scale four-acter dealing with the life of the great African-American athlete who met with extraordinary success at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, only to find fulfilment and prosperity frustratingly elusive thereafter. The opera was completed in 2011, but it is not clear to me that it has been performed in its entirety. What we have on this disc are two composite works which derive from it. The Philharmonia appear only in an eleven-minute orchestral suite consisting of five short pieces (referred to by Stimpson as “incidental music”); and then we have a rather more substantial cycle of eight of the opera’s vocal items, arranged for soprano, baritone and piano. The disc is rounded off by a set of five Preludes for solo piano which have no apparent connection with the Owens project, but were inspired in part by the Beijing Olympics of 2008.

For those unfamiliar with his work, it must be said at once that Stimpson’s idiom is essentially tonal and immediately approachable. He emerges on this disc as a most proficient orchestrator; but I would say that his prime gifts are probably his ability to set words in a sensitive and melodically attractive way, and his capacity for creating a wide range of atmospheres using restrained, tasteful and, on the whole, relatively conventional musical processes.

Stimpson is often at his best, I find, in slower, rather contemplative pieces. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that, even when its subject matter is a sprinter of phenomenal swiftness, his orchestral suite from Jesse Owens should contain a preponderance of moderately paced music. The first movement, ‘Overture’, has a tempo marking of “running”, and, following an initial strike of a (starting?) gong, Stimpson sets his violins going at a considerable, if slightly hesitant lick. Before long, however, as the other instruments join a basically fugal structure, the music slows down considerably – mirroring, programmatically or not, the poignantly anti-climactic nature of Owens’s life after athletics. The second movement, ‘Home’, is a nostalgic, but melancholy, picture of the farm in Alabama on which Owens grew up. It is launched, and then underpinned, by an ostinato for harp (an instrument with which Stimpson seems to have a particular affinity), over which woodwind in particular rhapsodize in a way that, cumulatively, conjures up a rather Coplandesque ‘open air’ atmosphere. Speed, volume and the prominence accorded to brass and percussion instruments all increase for a violent middle movement depicting the Klu Klux Klan. The fourth movement, ‘The Games’, then brings a slightly curious mix of German-style oompah and slower music based on popular songs; but the suite very much returns to form for its finale, ‘The Empty Stadium’, which includes music from the very end of the opera. It depicts Owens and his wife Ruth on their return to the Berlin Olympic Stadium after the war, re-living old triumphs and pondering immortality, to music of considerable beauty and tenderness. The Philharmonia’s playing under Scottish Opera’s Stuart Stratford has, here as elsewhere, both polish and conviction.

In the opera, according to Stimpson’s note, the role of Jesse Owens is divided amongst no fewer than four singers: a treble for the boy Jesse, a tenor for the athlete, a baritone for the middle-aged man, and a bass for the old one. In the song cycle we hear on this disc, Jesse’s words are sung only by a baritone, the excellent Johnny Herford – a solution which works perfectly well. The soprano soloist, however, has to cover a variety of roles – principally that of Ruth Owens, but in two songs Jesse’s (male) coach Charlie Riley and, in one, his friend the German long-jumper Luz Long. The short passages assigned to Riley work well enough, but in Long’s lengthy contribution to the song ‘Go Find my Son’, which is in many ways a hymn to specifically male bonding, one does feel the want of, say, a tenor. It’s not as bad as, for example, Leila participating in the Pearl Fishers’ Duet instead of Nadir, but, at least for a perhaps less imaginative listener like me, it doesn’t quite work.

Of the eight songs ‒ punctuated after the fifth by a brief piano interlude ‒ five, perhaps six are predominantly slow. The exceptions are ‘Jesse Meets Minnie’ (a.k.a. Ruth), a scherzo-like item depicting the teenage Jesse’s playful flirtation with the girl who was to become his wife; and ‘Four World Records’, which portrays his family’s breathless excitement on learning that he has broken the four (in the space of some forty minutes!) at a meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935. Even that song ends in a rather sombre mood, however, as Jesse reflects that “It all counts for nothing/If the battle over myself ain’t the battle I win”. An element of febrile excitement is conveyed also in ‘Money Lies’, in which the older Jesse reports on phone calls he has received offering him money to play baseball and race against horses; but here the strain of melancholy that affects many of these songs takes over pretty swiftly, as the baritone considers the indignity and injustice of a situation in which “there’s no work, no advertising,/ At least not for my pigment./And the pie from heaven is still not sent”.

Elsewhere we meet, in the songs ‘Home’ and ‘The Empty Stadium’, at least some of the material we have already encountered in the orchestral suite. One slightly misses the harp in the former, but the latter is transformed by the addition of words and vocal lines into a profoundly moving duet. ‘Minnie’s Song’ is a perhaps more conventional love song – and one in which Abigail Kelly’s appropriately slightly husky soprano falls prey to its occasional tendency to wax thin and shrill at the top. ‘Jim Crow’, however, movingly encapsulates the unreconstructed racism of Owens’s America, as we witness the great man having to send his coach to fetch food from a restaurant from which he himself would be excluded and, in Riley’s absence, proceeding to deliver a very strong arioso, ‘Them Poplar Trees’, which is modelled on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’.

Mention of Holiday reminds one of Stimpson’s statement, in the booklet, that his “musical influences are varied, from the early blues and 1920s jazz to hits of the day and some music of Germany”. Whilst his music does not seem derivative to any damaging degree, one can indeed discern influences of these modes in it; I find it interesting, however, that he does not specifically mention the African-American Spiritual as a significant influence. Certainly, songs such as ‘Home’, ‘Jim Crow’ and ‘Money Lies’ brought the poetic and musical conventions of Spirituals quite frequently to my mind, as did the overall tone of dignified yet wrathful lament that often characterizes particularly Jesse’s music.

The five Preludes in Our Time which complete the disc were, Stimpson tells us, composed at a time when “the world was looking eastwards – China at the time of the Beijing Olympics was a staggering contradiction of energy and the outrageous”. This does not mean, however, that with the possible exception of the short first Prelude, the music seems oriental in any pervasive or systematic way. It is perhaps slightly more obviously ‘modern’ in style than the Owens items: but the overtones I thought I sometimes heard were of composers such as Debussy, Ravel, maybe even Scriabin, rather than anything remotely avant-garde. Perhaps the most interesting single aspect of the Preludes is their skilfully wrought form. Each is approximately double the length of its predecessor, with the result that Prelude I lasts 49 seconds and Prelude V 9 minutes; and the final Prelude includes, in its second half, “a coda for each prelude, starting with the fifth and working back so that the final coda is a reflection of the first prelude”. I didn’t in all honesty find this process consistently easy to identify or assess, but certainly the piece does convey the general sense of describing a satisfactorily full circle. It has considerable, if not always memorable, rhythmic and melodic interest; and Megumi Fujita’s performance is one of exemplary musicality and technique.

It will be obvious from the above that I consider the works on this CD, and indeed Stimpson’s music more generally, to be well worth hearing. It is approachable, honest, well- crafted and eloquent. If forced to nominate one work by him that shows his individual gifts in their most favourable light, I would, I think, still point to Dylan. But not by much. This CD also contains much fine, humane music, which it is worth anyone’s while getting to know.

Nigel Harris

 




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