America carried the banner for the human experience of the modern world, with the angular optimism of Walt Whitman’s verse that emerged in part from a similarly embattled time. Yet in presenting this recital the baritone Thomas Hampson used the opportunity to explore literature that is rarely heard in concert and less often preserved in recordings of this quality.
The fifty selections presented in I Hear America Singing were given in two recitals and are organized in this recording into discrete sections with the titles “Early Voices of America,” “Walt Whitman Recognized from Afar,” “American Poets Heard in America,” and “Walt Whitman at Home” on the first CD ; and “Drei Hymnen von Walt Whitman,” “Lieder aus dem Schwarzen Amerika,” “Lieder aus text von Emily Dickinson,” “Musical Voices from American,” and “Verboten und verbannt.” (The latter section is the name of another fine collection of vocal music with which Hampson was involved.) The program includes settings by such composers as Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Charles Loeffler (1861-1935), and Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), as well as European composers who took inspiration in American verse, including Frank Bridge (1879-1941), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1957), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).
As to the poets, some are such enduring figures as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, while others are remembered more for their prose, as is the case with William Dean Howells and Herman Melville. Yet it is of interest to know that verse by Tennessee Williams was set by the polymath Paul Bowles (1910-1999) in his Blue Mountain Ballads, a seldom cycle seldom heard and performed convincingly by Hampson in this recording. The challenge of setting such strong writers as Whitman and Dickinson is to avoid introducing musical elements that detract from the rhythm and intonation in their texts, and the listener can determine how effective the various composers are in this regard. Some composers resorted to melodrama, as is the case with Frédéric Louis Ritter (1834-1891) in his Dirge for Two Veterans, a piece with cliché elements that Hampson handles well in his straightforward reading of the work.
While it is easy to praise some of the more famous composers, like Vaughan Williams and Hindemith, the value of this collection is in the range of composers represented. Many of the figures may be, for some listeners, names on a list whose music is not immediately familiar. Thus, in addition to individuals like Bowles, it is useful to hear works by such fine composers as Hugo Weisgall (1912-1997), Henry Thacker Burleigh (1886-1949), Ernst Bacon (1989-1990), and others included in this recital program. In addition, the familiar has its place, with the selections from the music of Stephen Foster (1826-1864) and John Jacob Niles contributing an almost iconic sense to this recording. By no means encyclopedic in presenting American song, some composers, like Copland, Blitzstein, and Bernstein are notably absent, but their vocal works are known well enough through various recordings. Nevertheless, the settings of e. e. cummings’ poetry by Blitzstein come to mind, as an American literary voice who stands with Whitman and Dickinson for a highly individual and musical style. At the same time the selections in this recording also call to mind the songs of other contemporary composers, like William Bolcom, who represent other American voices.
As to the performances themselves, the dynamic of the live recital emerges effectively in this recording, which includes some spoken passages by Hampson. His delivery is solid and deliberate, his phrasing well-thought and insightful. In rendering a range of pieces by a variety of composers, Hampson offers some persuasive interpretations that both accompanists support well. His diction contributes to the interpretations of the songs, with readings that are clear enough to preclude consulting the texts that accompany the CDs, as one expects of a performer of Hampson’s caliber. The contribution of Hampson and his associations in I Hear America Singing certainly opens the door for further explorations of the rich poetic and musical traditions that will allow other performers and their audiences to enjoy the musical creativity of generations of artists.
James L. Zychowicz