BARBER Knoxville: Summer of 1915. COWELL Symphonic Set. IVES Symphony No. 2 – Stephen Somary, cond; Nürnberg SO; Linda Hohenfeld (sop) – CLAVES CD 50-9806 (70:15 &)
THE WORLD SO WIDE – Dawn Upshaw (sop); David Zinman, cond; Orchestra of St. Luke’s – NONESUCH 79458-2 (45:26 &)
Arias from: BARBER Antony and Cleopatra. FLOYD Susannah. COPLAND The Tender Land. BERNSTEIN Trouble in Tahiti. WEILL Street Scene. ADAMS Nixon in China. MOORE Ballad of Baby Doe. LEÓN Scourge of Hyacinths.
I WILL BREATHE A MOUNTAIN – Marilyn Horne (sop); Martin Katz (pn); Tokyo String Quartet – RCA VICTOR 09026-68771-2 (68:04 &)
BARBER Dover Beach. Six Songs. BERNSTEIN EightSongs. BOLCOM IWill Breathe a Mountain.
The common link among these three recent releases of varying interest is the presence of vocal music by Samuel Barber. Of them the most rewarding is unquestionably the Dawn Upshaw disc. As poorly represented as American art song is on disc, anthologies of American opera excerpts are even rarer, and presumably of minimal appeal to the record-buying public. Offhand, even reaching back to the LP era, I can recall only a few. The one that first comes to mind is an LP issued privately during the early 1980s called American Girl (Eb-Sko 1007), which featured a fine but little-known soprano named Helen-Kay Eberley. That disc, which included two of the selections heard on this new Upshaw release, drew rather ecstatic notices, partly in praise of Ms. Eberley’s artistry, but also because of the unsuspected appeal of the music.
The truth is that American opera represents a vast repertoire that includes many works of compelling beauty and riveting drama. Most are still largely unknown to the musical public, although a small but committed audience of American opera enthusiasts has made cult “hits” of a few, which have made the rounds of regional opera companies. Many of them have — like most of their composers — remained largely unknown to the broader musical public and have been given a wide berth by record companies. Consider an opera like Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which has enjoyed more than 700 performances during its 40-some years of existence, yet achieved its first commercial recording just four years ago (see Fanfare 18:3). Operas by composers such as Floyd, Barab, Menotti, Hoiby, Argento, Pasatieri and others have enjoyed multiple productions throughout the country, and elsewhere in some cases, yet a glance at the current Opus catalog reveals just how sparsely these works have been documented on recording. All of which provides a context within which to observe that The World So Wide is a captivating and rewarding album, beautifully performed, but one that barely scratches the surface of this repertoire.
What I find so delightful about Dawn Upshaw’s performances is the way her technical accuracy and precision, are enlivened by intelligence, exuberance, warmth, and enthusiasm. The arias she has chosen are attractive for the most part, although there are some perplexing and disappointing inclusions and omissions. The disc’s standout is unquestionably the tender and poignant “Ain’t it a pretty night?” from Susannah. Upshaw’s rendition is brilliant, and the aria — the whole work, in fact — should be heard by all lovers of the mainstream opera repertoire. “Laurie’s Song” from Copland’s The Tender Land is lovely and quite similar to it in content, style, and tone, with its innocent yearning for “the world out there,” but Copland cannot boast an equivalent lyrical intensity. I am very fond of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra(which is treated rather shabbily in the program notes, which emphasize its initial failure, rather than the overwhelming success of its 1974 revival in revised form and its 1984 recording). But I don’t understand why Upshaw chose to record “Give Me Some Music,” which is rather disjointed and unfocused as an excerpt, rather than the gorgeously magisterial “Give Me My Robe.” Nor can I understand why she chose the rather silly, Broadway-ish parody, “What a Movie,” from Trouble in Tahiti, rather than the achingly beautiful “There Is a Garden.” The Street Scene excerpt is a nice example of Weill’s subtle way of stretching the language of popular music. The familiar selection from The Ballad of Baby Doe partakes of generally the same vein of Americana lyricism as the Floyd and Copland selections, but crosses the line into mawkish, aw-shucks sentimentality. Upshaw includes two recent examples: a most curious aria from John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987), in which the music creates a compelling mood suggestive of ominous portents, but with a text that is all but completely absurd; and an excerpt from Cuban-born Tania León’s Scourge of Hyacinths (1994), whose comparative insubstantiality suggests that its inclusion represents a nod to political correctness.
The program notes by Jamie James suggest that American opera barely existed before World War II, but this is not at all true. Earlier works may not have been exactly welcomed by American opera companies, but there certainly were plenty of them. Howard Hanson’s glorious, still-barely-known Merry Mount made a tremendous impact with Lawrence Tibbett in the leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in 1934, and Vittorio Giannini’s Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter were both composed and mounted during the ‘30s. These latter two have major soprano roles (tailored to the composer’s sister Dusolina, who created both), that Upshaw might have explored. In view of the important role played by composers of Italian descent in building the American opera repertoire — Menotti, Giannini, Argento, Pasatieri, Flagello, and others — it is remarkable that not one is represented on this disc. I do hope that these observations do not make me seem crabby and ungrateful. This disc is a wonderful effort that will delight many listeners. But I’m ready for Volume II and would be happy to consult on the contents.
The Marilyn Horne recital will hold great appeal for her many fans. It should be noted that, though released just this year, the disc features performances recorded between December, 1993 (before she turned 60) and November, 1996. The major work is William Bolcom’s I Will Breathe a Mountain, a cycle of eleven songs to texts by women poets, composed specifically for Horne in commemoration of the 100thbirthday of Carnegie Hall. The work is quite a tour-de-force for both singer and composer. The selected poems embrace a wide range of styles, tones, and attitudes, offering Bolcom an ideal opportunity to indulge his penchant for multi-stylistic eclecticism, from atonal declamation to tonal diatonicism. This sort of thing finds a ready acceptance today among craven critics and insecure audiences, while enabling the composer to display a cornucopia of skills and techniques without having to take the risk of committing himself to a consistent, focused, personal creative voice. Similarly, it offers Horne the opportunity to display her considerable — and still viable — versatility as a vocal artist, projected through her own engaging personality.
Leonard Bernstein was one of the original multi-stylistic eclectics, whose eclecticism truly represented a personal creative voice, rather than a hedging of commitment, with results that were more artistically successful than the works of such latter-day figures as Bolcom and John Corigliano. The love of musicians and audiences alike for Bernstein’s music far exceeds the rather modest proportions of his oeuvre, so recent years have seen his output picked over in eager search for scraps that might prove worthy—and, indeed, some little-known gems have turned up. A couple of these are among the miscellany of songs Horne has selected here, drawn from a wide variety of sources dating from all points during Bernstein’s career. She opens with “My Home,” a very pretty if rather slight morsel, taken from the abortive Peter Pan of 1950, and closes with perhaps the most promising posthumous discovery — “Dream with Me,” originally written in 1944 for — but not used in — On the Town. This song, heard here with a rather expanded, piano bar-style accompaniment arranged by Martin Katz, captures the warm, tender poignancy of so many of Bernstein’s most beloved songs. The rest are a disparate lot, including a song written for Barbra Streisand to sing at an antiwar benefit in 1968, some excerpts from the composer’s last work, Arias and Barcarolles, an excerpt from the 1977 Songfest originally intended for Horne, and a couple of other items. As one might expect, Bernstein’s songs are ideally suited to Horne’s gifts at this point in her career, and her combination of artistry and personality make the most of the material.
In contrast, Horne is somewhat less successful in meeting the more tightly-focused requirements of the Barber selections, which call for greater tonal control and accuracy of pitch, while offering less opportunity for projection of personality. In addition to Dover Beach, she has selected six of Barber’s most familiar and accessible songs, all composed before he turned 30. While her readings are quite adequate, other recent efforts — most notably the renditions of Cheryl Studer on DG’s “complete” two-disc Barber song anthology (435 867-2), released in 1994, which also featured baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist John Browning (see Fanfare 18:1) — are more fully realized.
The Claves disc is a Swiss production, recorded in Germany, featuring American music conducted by an American living in Germany, and with excellent program notes by Fanfare alumnus Roger Dettmer. Unfortunately, it is the sort of release I hate to confront: effort, money, and talent invested in a project doomed from its conception, as common sense would seemingly make apparent. Knoxville is certainly one of Samuel Barber’s acknowledged masterpieces, and is readily available on recording in superb performances by the likes of Leontyne Price, Sylvia McNair, and Dawn Upshaw. Linda Hohenfeld offers an adequate reading — accurate, not unpleasant, but undercharacterized and undistinguished overall (aside from the fact that the work is preceded by a spoken recitation of the introductory sentence inscribed in the score). There is no reason why anyone other than friends and family of the performers would want to own it.
The Ives Second — that at times playful, at times touchingly reflective collage of Americana draped over the sober framework of the Brahms-Dvorak symphonic ideal — is certainly an engaging and accessible work. But with stunning performances featuring major orchestras conducted by Ives enthusiasts like Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas available on recording, … Come on, get real!
All of which brings us to the 12-minute Symphonic Set by Henry Cowell (another who made his name as a multi-stylistic eclectic, with mixed success — see Fanfare 21:1 for a more thorough consideration). This is the first recording, as far as I know, of this 1938 work, an arrangement for chamber orchestra of a piece that, in its original scoring for soprano, flute, cello, and piano, was entitled Toccanta (and was recorded on an old Columbia LP, as I recall). This is a relatively early and rather successful example of Cowell’s integrated “world music” approach, in which a musical language is synthesized from materials derived from an enormous range of different ethnic musics. The resulting works sound generically “folk-like,” but without specific ethnic identity. Listeners familiar with Cowell’s music might think of it as a brief preview of his Eleventh Symphony, one of his most fully consummated works.
With so many wonderful orchestral works by American composers whose music is just now enjoying a resurgence of interest still awaiting first-ever recordings, it is really hard to imagine the train of thought that would have led to the conclusion that the contents of this disc, in these performances, make a contribution of any significance, either commercially or artistically. The consumer is thus faced with the question of whether owning the Cowell work is reason enough to purchase the disc.