by Walter Simmons
SONGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME Roberta Alexander (sop); Brian Masuda (pn) ETCETERA KTC-1208 (72:37)
GIANNINI Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky!; Sing to My Heart a Song; It is a Spring Night. RACHMANINOV Spring Waters. R. THOMPSON Velvet Shoes.HAGEMAN Do Not Go, My Love; Music I Heard with You. E. CHARLES When I Have Sung My Songs; Clouds; Youth. SPROSS Let All My Life Be Music. QUILTER Love’s Philosophy. RASBACH When I Am Dead, My Dearest.COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Life and Death. NILES Go ‘Way from My Window. DUNGAN Eternal Life. MALOTTE The Lord’s Prayer. MISC. ARRANGERS Ten Spirituals
Also included at no extra charge: ROBERTA ALEXANDER … A RETROSPECTIVE [music by Barber, Ives, R. Strauss, Mozart, Puccini, Bernstein, Copland, et al.] ETCETERA KTC-1222 (69:06)
I must admit that I was initially attracted to this disc because of the presence of three songs by Vittorio Giannini. The genre that might be termed “middle-brow American art-songs” occupied Giannini’s attention for a period early on during a prolific compositional career that also bore more than a dozen operas and seven symphonies. The three songs included here are probably his best known, and all are set to texts by Karl Flaster. Flaster, a part-time poet, and Giannini met at a bus stop while both were in their early 20s, and began a fruitful collaboration that lasted for the rest of their lives. (A fascinating account of their relationship, written by Anne Simpson and Karl Wonderly Flaster [the poet’s son], appeared in the Winter, 1988 issue of American Music. Also, an entire CD, entitled Hopelessly Romantic, is devoted to songs by Giannini and Flaster [ACA CM 20011-11; see Fanfare 16:1].) Their first song, “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” written in 1927, proved to be their most popular, and remained one of Giannini’s most enduring successes. It was recorded by Mario Lanza, Leonard Warren, and, more recently, by Thomas Hampson, among others, and appeared regularly on recital programs throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. “Sing to My Heart a Song” appears also (and with orchestral accompaniment) on a recent Ben Heppner CD called My Secret Heart, which covers a similar musical terrain. These songs belong to a musical genre of which I have some vague awareness but little true knowledge. I gather that songs of this kind were popular at a time when there was a broader appreciation of the “light classical” sensibility than there has been during recent decades (although perhaps the Andrea Bocelli phenomenon represents some sort of revival), and that such songs were not out of place on programs of “art-songs.” Evidently Ms. Alexander’s mother, whose name was also Roberta, was a singer of some note, and used to perform many of these songs in her recitals. My assumption was that Giannini’s efforts would loom far above the others, with regard to their musical invention, taste, and craftsmanship, and that the others — especially those by composers whose names were unfamiliar to me, such as Ernest Charles, Charles Gilbert Spross, and Olive Dungan — would be laughably mawkish.
Imagine my surprise! Yes, perhaps the Giannini songs display an unerringly focused melodic thrust, which was his particular gift. But, on the whole, I found most of the “composed” songs, though requiring tolerance for a type of sentimentality that is clearly not part of the Y2K sensibility, quite comparable to Giannini’s, with regard to their level of taste, their degree of artistry, and even their musical language itself. (I was also surprised to find that the sappiness of Flaster’s poetry was matched by most of the texts chosen by the others.) To be more explicit, none of these songs matches the elegance or exquisite refinement of taste of, say, Samuel Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night.” Their composers selected texts that highlight some eternal truth, inspiring homily, or otherwise fragile sentiment, and expanded them into passionate outpourings that build to climaxes of Wagnerian grandiosity (you think I’m kidding?). Well, we might expect Rachmaninov’s contribution to approach a high standard; and, after all, Randall Thompson built a successful career of choral music evincing a poignant simplicity. But I also found the three songs by Ernest Charles, the one by Charles Gilbert Spross, the two by Richard Hagemen, the one by Roger Quilter, the one by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Olive Dungan’s setting of a delicate prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, to be sincere — if at the same time undeniably eyeball-rolling — expressions of feeling, articulated through music well-tailored to make the desired impact. The more hard-hearted may feel otherwise, but I can’t dismiss them as lacking any enduring merit.
The songs I did not mention are similar affairs, if somewhat more ordinary and conventional, and thus less noteworthy. And I must confess to a problem with “Negro spirituals” presented in concert-type arrangements, which, though tasteful and skillful, present these folk melodies with a formality and preciousness that vitiate their simple directness and robust exuberance.
The sampler CD, offered as a bonus, documents the many fine recordings Roberta Alexander has made for the Dutch company, Etcetera. Most of these recordings were reviewed in Fanfare when they were first issued, so I will not dwell on them here, except to say that they provide ample evidence of Ms. Alexander’s considerable artistic intelligence, sensitivity, and artistry, not to mention her stylistic versatility. Her voice itself displays certain idiosyncrasies, such as a rather rapid, almost tremulous, vibrato that is not to everyone’s taste. I do have one interpretive reservation regarding the “middle-brow” disc: The soprano clearly opts for an approach that “plays it straight,” presenting each song with a high-toned sobriety that has the effect of inflating what are essentially sentimental trifles into grander statements than I believe even their composers intended. While I am certainly not suggesting that she condescend or mock the material in any way, perhaps a less formal, more intimate presentation of these songs would be more appropriate to their aesthetic scope.