Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Thomas Hampson focuses on Chicago composers as he furthers the American art song

There is a cornucopia of pleasant surprises available about the American art song in Thomas
Thomas Hampson has steadily promoted the vitality of the art song.
Hampson's
latest recording, "Songs from Chicago" (Cedille Records).

For keeping interest alive in a 20th-century original, the lifelong Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter, the CD makes its mark particularly with his settings of poems by Langston Hughes and especially by Rabindranath Tagore, whose cycle "Gitanjali" accounts for one-third of the hourlong program, with sensitive assistance at the piano by Kuang-Hao Huang.

It's Hampson's debut on the Chicago-based label, which is still under the direction of its founder, James Ginsburg, son of the most widely beloved Supreme Court justice. The performances on "Songs from Chicago" are immaculate. "Gitanjali" is a richly perfumed set of prose poems in a style that is too florid for our era, perhaps, but Carpenter's musical response to them is like a preservative that makes them seem fresh.

Radiant piano chords introduce the first line of one of the songs: "I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious." You need the insulin of music to moderate the sugar high of those words, and Carpenter supplied it. There's no sense that the composer intended to introduce the slightest irony behind any of Tagore's prose-poems, however. It's his very commitment to the texts that enabled him to supply settings of consistent enhancement throughout the 23 songs (plus a spoken prologue and epilogue).

Carpenter is also represented here by three of his "Four Negro Songs" to Hughes' poetry. Authentic, zestful appreciation of the African-American heritage is a feature of both the compositions and Hampson's performance of them. "Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey!," a celebration of vernacular dance, is performed jauntily by the duo. Hampson cannot be accused of adopting a blackface style, I believe, but is simply being true to both Hughes' idiom and Carpenter's effusive setting. He is no more required to be black to sing these songs authentically than he would need to be a despairing,  love-sick German youth to put across Schubert's "Winterreise."

Most effective from the standpoint of the classical art-song tradition are seven songs by Ernst Bacon to well-chosen excerpts of Walt Whitman poetry. Hampson's sustained phrasing is well-deployed here, especially in "The Last Invocation." The singer's ability to put some heft into his middle and upper register without straining comes through in "Darest Thou Now, O Soul."  Bacon's music strikes me sometimes as a little tendentious and "forced," but it must be hard for composers to avoid that whenever they set Whitman.

It's hard to account responsibly for everything on this disc, but I want to single out the expressive tone of anger Hampson commands so well in Margaret Bonds' setting of one of Hughes's most anthologized poems, the one beginning "I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother." Also worth highlighting is the sustained feeling of veneration that Hampson and Huang achieve in Florence Price's "Song to the Dark Virgin," a Hughes poem of more than usual mystery.

The whole disc gives a boost to the need not to overlook the art song when it comes to celebrating our musical heritage. Popular song by no means tells the full story of the American experience.




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