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CD Review

Blue Wheat

  • Folk songs arranged by Houkom, Kubik, Fissinger, Barnett, Martin, De Cormier, Luboff, Roger Wagner, Burleigh, Keller, Paulus, Parker, and Rutter
Kathy Kinzle, harp
Kathryn Greenbank, oboe
Dale Warland Singers/Dale Warland
American Choral Catalog, Ltd. ACC122
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Simple gifts.

Tom Lehrer once remarked that the only thing wrong with folk music was "that it was written by the people," and proceeded to take "My Darling Clementine" through the styles of "real professionals" like Cole Porter, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Mozart. Well, that sort of thing's all right for "My Darling Clementine," but not for "Shenandoah," which has absolutely nothing to apologize for. Puccini should have lived long enough to write something so beautiful. My feeling about those composers who think folk songs beneath serious aesthetic notice is that they take second-best - something a lot easier than coming up with a great tune.

I might as well just say this up front: "Blue Wheat" is the best choral recording of American folk music since the heady days of the Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner Chorales. As far as I'm concerned, the Dale Warland Singers are the next golden link in the chain of professional American choral groups, and they do have very strong competition. What sets them apart from the rest is a gorgeous, flexible sound, achieved in no small measure by intonation that is not just dead on, but downright ravishing, and clarity of texture helped both by the aforementioned intonation and by razor-sharp rhythm.

The success of this subgenre of recording depends on three things:

  1. The selection of tunes. American vernacular music is amazingly diverse, not surprising for a country made up of the traditions of other countries. There's trash and treasure

  2. The arrangements. The power of the songs lies in the tune. The arrangement must respect the tune. Too often, one encounters arrangements designed to show off the arranger or the performer, rather than the tune

  3. The performer. The group or artist must choose a style appropriate to the genre. The one-size-fits-all operatic style (plant your feet, take a deep breath, and let fly with the Queen of the Night's aria) won't do here. Part of the difficulty relates to the problem of singing in English, which even most native-speaker, classically-trained singers don't do convincingly. After all, they've probably never studied it, and they generally wind up sounding like the musical equivalent of Margaret Dumont. The performers must pull off the trick of singing "colloquially" without lapsing into pop or a grotesque "Pa Kettle" parody

As far as (1) goes, there's only one dud. Nothing on earth will make me love or even like "Skip to My Lou." However, it's like the piece of horehound in a box of Godivas. I can always sample around it. The rest - known and not-so-known - glean the best of Appalachia, the Black spiritual, and the minstrel song.

Warland uses mostly contemporary arrangers, with a few "classics" thrown in: H. T. Burleigh, Gail Kubik, Robert De Cormier, and the fabulous Alice Parker. All the arrangements, even the unfortunate Edwin Fissinger's for "Skip to My Lou," are first-rate, and some are minor masterpieces. I can't talk about all of them, but I'd like to at least mention some.

H. T. Burleigh, a Black composer who straddled the turn of the century, became an American friend of Dvořák's and may have been the first to play for that master the great spirituals. "My Lord, What a Morning" is one of his best arrangements. It pulls off the trick of using very sophisticated, chromatic harmonies to clad a simple tune. "Taste" is the answer, I guess. The harmonies wrap the tune like a warm blanket. Warland's performance rubs elbows with the Shaw Chorales, from their classic RCA LP "Deep River." I can't choose between them.

Gail Kubik's harmonic palette stands at a distance from Burleigh's, much of it based on fifths and fourths, which works to great advantage in "He's Goin' Away." This also applies to Gilbert Martin's "Wayfarin' Stranger," which adds a gorgeous harp part and simple canonic imitation. Both tracks will break your heart.

Some choral afficionados will recognize the name Robert De Cormier, a talented musician whom I believe ran into political trouble to the 1950s and got put on several Guardians of American Liberty's blacklists. The music itself - "Soldier, Soldier" succeeds better than "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" - shows that you don't need a lot of notes or "touches," as long as you put down the right notes. Mark Keller's vigorous "Hard Times Come Again No More" shows this as well.

My heart skipped a beat or two when I saw the listing of Keller's "Pretty Saro," since I had just finished arranging the tune myself. Fortunately, I had already sent it to the performers and couldn't call it back. Immediately I wondered what he had seen in the tune that I hadn't. It turns out that he figured out what to do with the simplicity of the song - simplicity without sentimentality - while for me, the song triggered memories of other mountain tunes as well.

The big find for me on this CD is Carol Barnett, who contributes three incredible arrangements: "Steal Away," "Red River Valley," and "Deep River." "Steal Away" does amazing things with astounding enharmonic modulations, while keeping the integrity of the tune. It's as if the melody is clothed in a shining robe. I like it even better than Tippett's setting for a Child of Our Time. "Red River Valley" has been mangled and reduced to Jew's-harp triviality by so many bad movie soundtracks, it's all but obliterated the poetry of the original. Barnett reminds you of the time before interstates and jets when going away usually meant going away forever. The singers don't want to let go of the tune, just as the speaker wants to keep the one about to depart. "Deep River" seems to pay homage to the older generation of Spiritual arrangers: Burleigh, Hall Johnson, Roland Hayes, and William Levi Dawson, with perhaps a hint of Michael Tippett. Stunning.

A danger for a group as technically accomplished as the Dale Warland Singers is that the music might be too simple. One nice thing about leaping over the hurdles posed by a difficult piece is that this alone can become the end. Something much simpler gives the performer nothing he's used to chewing on. The simpler the technical requirements, the more immediate the demands on musicianship and artistry. The Dale Warland Singers meet this challenge fully. They are idiomatic, but never patronizing.

In short, spend an hour with some of the greatest tunes in the world, freshly and handsomely arrayed, lovingly sung.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz