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Michael STIMPSON (b.1948)
Jesse Owens (completed 2014?): incidental music [10.42] and songs [35.11]
Preludes in our time (2008) [19.53]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Stuart Stratford
Abigail Kelly (soprano)
Jolhnny Herford (baritone)
Megumi Fujita (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 11 February 2014, Royal College of Music, London, 8 June 2014
STONE RECORDS 5060192780659 [65.41]

Back in November 2013, when I was reviewing Elžbieta Sikora’s opera Madame Curie, I made a number of observations on the long and honourable tradition of biographical opera, when a composer constructs a whole evening around the career of a prominent figure of the past – a tradition to which Michael Stimpson’s Jesse Owens clearly falls heir. I did not however mention the consideration of plot construction in that context: more precisely, should the opera follow a strictly chronological approach, or should it blend together incidents from different eras of the protagonist’s life? Here Stimpson and his three fellow-librettists credited in the booklet generally follow a standard time-line beginning with the athlete’s impoverished upbringing in America’s Deep South and progressing to his final ruminations in the deserted Berlin Olympic stadium at the end of his life; but the final scene includes reminiscences of earlier times, including a ghostly appearance of his memory of the German athlete and fellow-competitor Luz Long. In order to encompass this extended period of time, the title role is assigned to no fewer than four singers – a treble (Owens as a boy), a tenor (the young athlete), a baritone (the middle-aged and disillusioned hero) and finally a bass (the old man looking back over his career) – with all four combining during the closing pages of the opera.

This is not however made immediately clear in the cycle of songs extracted from the opera, nine excerpts assigned simply to a soprano and baritone soloist. The baritone takes the role of Jesse throughout, but the soprano has to undertake not only Jesse’s girlfriend and later wife, but also the parts of his coach and Luz Long, both of which were presumably originally written for male singers. Nevertheless the excerpts we are given here, despite the evident need for considerable re-arrangement, serve to give a sample of an opera where the feeling for the voice is clearly demonstrated and the emotional charge often runs high. The last two items in the cycle in particular, which seem to be continuous in their context, certainly bring a sense of finality and reconciliation which is moving in the extreme. This is demonstrated even more convincingly in the final movement of the orchestral suite which the composer has extracted from the opera and which precedes the songs on the disc; it is only an abridged version of the closing scene, but it displays a bruising sense of yearning which one can imagine working superbly in the theatre. The second movement of the suite also reflects material from the songs; the other three movements stand alone, but none of them exceeds three minutes in duration, which does leave a rather bitty impression of what is clearly designed as an extended score.

The orchestral excerpts do however also serve to demonstrate Stimpson’s delicate sense of instrumentation in a manner which Magumi Fujita’s piano reduction struggles to reproduce in her accompaniment to the vocal excerpts. Some of the busier figuration seems rather one-dimensional in the context (I was reminded in places of Alan Bush), and the solo instrumental lines in Minnie’s song for example (track 8) positively cry out for the warmth of woodwind and strings. The two solo singers cope well with their idiomatically written vocal lines; but ideally one would welcome a greater sense of dramatic involvement as well as lyrical delivery, and Abigail Kelly, having to cope with multiple roles, shows signs of unexpected huskiness in places which suggest that she might have been suffering from a cold at the time of the recording. For similar reasons Johnny Herford, fine when he has to cope with high-flying (possibly originally tenor) lines, sounds gritty when he has to descend into the bass register.

What all this means, in total, is that what would be still more rewarding than these excerpts from what is clearly an expertly constructed and well-written score would be a complete performance of the four-act opera in its entirety. It is distressing that opportunities for non-commissioned operatic scores to achieve concert performance – let alone staging – are so limited in Britain. The BBC, who at one time seemed willing and able to mount studio recordings of rare and unperformed British operas, seem to have abandoned their efforts in this regard, presumably on grounds of expense. Recording companies tend to prefer to issue live recordings of stage presentations only (with all the attendant hazards attached), but if perhaps this disc is intended as a sampler with a view to the promotion of a complete performance of Jesse Owens then I wish it every success.

The five piano preludes which conclude the disc, with the same pianist as in the Jesse Owens songs, are less immediately impressive pieces although their structure – with each prelude doubling in length so that the final movement is nearly as long as the preceding four added together – is intriguing and convincing. They are superbly played by Fujita, and in the orchestral suite Stuart Stratford obtains a committed and involved performance from the Philharmonia, well recorded.

By the way, the excellent booklet (which includes the complete text of the sung poems) is silent on the date when the composer actually completed his opera. In an earlier review for this site Nigel Harris gives this as 2011; but the booklet states that he was still working on the score when he wrote The drowning of Capel Celyn, which was only first performed in September 2013. At all events the musical setting was presumably finished by the date of this performance of the orchestral suite in February 2014. (I note also that Nigel Harris in his summary of the plot of the opera refers to approaches made to the athlete after his Berlin Olympic triumphs to play baseball; this is in fact a misinterpretation of the even more demeaning situation, that he was asked to run in competition with horses during intervals in baseball games.)

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Nigel Harris



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