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CD Review

Masterworks Heritage

Modern American Vocal Works

1 Eleanor Steber (soprano), Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra/William Strickland
2 Leontyne Price (soprano), Samuel Barber, piano
3 William Warfield (baritone), Aaron Copland, piano
4 Jennie Tourel (mezzo), New Music String Quartet
5 Joseph Crawford (tenor), Clyde S. Turner (tenor), Joseph James (baritone), William C. Smith (bass), Virgil Thomson, piano
Sony MHK60899 Mono 79:31
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Classic songs, classic interpreters.

Virgil Thomson, at the time music critic for the New York Herald Tribune and a drumbeater for the Modern, persuaded Goddard Lieberson, head of the classical division of Columbia Records, to inaugurate a series of American music. They were determined to produce it with class. A board - made up of Lieberson, Thomson, William Schuman, Copland, and Henry Cowell - chose the repertoire, and they didn't shrink from "hard." They sought out the worthy and the obscure, as well as the worthy and what they thought might catch on. They recorded string quartets by Foss, Barber, Imbrie, Bergsma, Diamond, Mennin, Schuman, and Haeiff, sonatas and other chamber works by Cowell, Bowles, Hovhaness, Harrison, Piston, and Creston, orchestral works by Thomson, Piston, and Harris, and the vocal works here. The series constitutes a fascinating snapshot of American music in the early postwar years, as well as the period's heady idealism. This was, after all, just one of several cotemporaneous projects on different labels for recording American music. In terms of sheer scale and quality of realization, there's been nothing like that level of activity since.

This release restores to the domestic U.S. catalogue performances that remain benchmarks of their respective works. All are première recordings, and the performers seem to have gotten it wonderfully right the first time. The Steber-Strickland account of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for sheer power has yet to be equaled. Steber's tone may be a bit harsh and her diction comes and goes, but that doesn't seem to matter. I love the fact that she sings English with a real American accent and convinces you very much like a great pop singer does, entering into the drama of the poem. Others have sung the work more beautifully, but either with less emotional penetration or with an orchestra on a different interpretive page. Steber and Strickland achieve the equivalent of a Vulcan mind-meld here. It is almost as if Steber accompanied herself. Amazingly enough, Barber had to be convinced Steber was someone he wanted to write for. He insisted that Steber study the piece with him. Knoxville - its searing beauty aside - obviously meant a great deal to Barber. He spent a great deal of time honing to his satisfaction, even after the first public performance. Steber sings the final revision, for chamber orchestra.

Price and Barber come up with the finest (and first) recording of the composer's Hermit Songs. This is Price before she took on the heftier Verdi dramatic soprano roles, when her voice sounded as fresh as a sweetwater spring. Hermit Songs is my favorite Barber cycle. Its lyricism is a kin of Knoxville and thus one of the most unabashedly beautiful things he wrote. Each song is a gem, some songs - "The Crucifixion" and "The Desire for Hermitage," for example - more than that. I certainly prefer it to the current big-name competition of Cheryl Studer and John Browning on DG (part of that label's collection of Barber's "complete" songs). Studer sings consistently flat and the vocal quality is tired. Browning does well and tends to greater detail than the composer, but the composer certainly knew what the overall effect of each of the cycle's songs and, while no virtuoso, nevertheless played very well indeed. Like most great song cycles – Die schoene Müllerin and Winterreise, for example – Hermit Songs hints at the world beyond its ostensible subject (the monastic life), because it delves so deep into the psyche. Price and Barber perform these songs as if they matter and make me regret just a little Price's operatic career. She could have been one of the great Lieder singers.

This CD includes - if you can believe it - the first release of the première recording of Copland's second set of Old American Songs. The complete orchestral version (again with Warfield and Copland) has long been a classic of the stereo era. The question becomes whether you really need the piano-vocal original. I would say definitely so, with these performers. What hits you with immediate force - Warfield's voice and Copland's piano - is the precision of Copland's aural imagination - the completeness of the musical world he creates in the very first "Boatman's Song" with fewer than a dozen notes. That evocative exactitude calls to mind Mahler's songs, and indeed these are kind of an American equivalent to Mahler. One marks the similar stance of each composer toward folk music and how each transforms a folk idiom into art music, as well as the comparable relation between piano-vocal original and orchestral arrangement. By some miracle, the original implies the orchestration to an amazing extent. Warfield finds himself in slightly better voice in this earlier version - more ringing, less fuzz in the tone. However, his singing was never strictly about the beauty of his voice, but about his ability to traverse several styles, from vernacular to haute couture and to communicate with great directness. A lot of this comes down to his diction - extraordinarily clear and idiomatic American English - and his ability to declaim poetry in a natural way, without losing the magic.

I love Virgil Thomson's work, but even I find "Capital, Capitals" (to a text by Gertrude Stein) rough going - or, to be more precise, rough going on and on and on. It comes off as little more than an experiment. I'm happy to have heard it once, but I'd think long and hard before committing to another go-round. A lot of dominant-to-tonic and not even Thomson's ingenuity with speech rhythms overcomes the tedium that eventually sets in. On the other hand, the Stabat Mater, for string quartet and voice, is a masterpiece. The text is not the liturgical poem, but a French surrealist work by Max Jacob, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, who (in Ned Rorem's phrase) became more Catholic than the pope. It didn't help him. He died in a concentration camp. To those who think of Thomson as the phony naïf, this work may surprise. As with everything Thomson wrote, the Stabat Mater is contrapuntally spare and open. In this case the sparseness translates into emotional austerity. The harmonies hinted at are more complex than you might expect, particularly if you know only works like Louisiana Story. There's a feeling of Renaissance modality to it - church music, if you will, without the official prayer. Jennie Tourel, one of the smartest, most musicianly singers of our time, delivers a passionate account.

This release is a first-class job on just about every level. The repertoire is mostly excellent. One can certainly argue that the performances are the best that we have gotten so far. Sony has cleaned up and perhaps enhanced the sound. My LPs never sounded this good. The liner notes, by Ned Rorem, are superb. This is probably a classic CD, one that collectors will speak of fondly in years to come. My one quibble is that Sony has not provided the texts, a very odd decision for an album of songs.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz