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Recordings

Song of America: Music from the Library of Congress
19 Apr 2006

Song of America: Music from the Library of Congress

In connection with the joint project by Thomas Hampson and the U.S. Library of Congress to present events about American song and other creativity at venues as varied as Kansas City, Fort Worth, and Carnegie Hall, EMI Classics has released this CD containing tracks from three earlier discs featuring Thomas Hampson.

Song of America: Music from the Library of Congress

Thomas Hampson, baritone. Accompaniments by Craig Rutenberg, Armen Guzelimian and the ensemble of Jay Ungar, Molly Mason and David Alpher (with Michael Parloff, Flute).

EMI Classics 0-946-3-41645-2 8

$14.98  Click to buy

If you already own these discs, there is nothing new here besides the notes and the program order, but since two of the discs are no longer in the active catalogue, this new release offers a good sampling of the fruits of Hampson’s championship of American art song while providing a souvenir CD for his recital tour.

For Hampson disc collectors wishing to cut to the chase, eight songs are taken from An Old Song Resung, a 1990 recital of “American Concert Songs”, six first appeared on From the Soul, Hampson’s sung and recited 1997 tribute to the poetry of Walt Whitman, and the remaining six are from American Dreamer, a 1992 collection of Stephen Foster songs arranged for his voice and an old-time music ensemble of violin, guitar and piano (this is the disc that is still in the active catalogue). The songs are interspersed, although most of the Whitman songs are heard near or at the end of the program (the exception being Ned Rorem’s “As Adam Early in the Morning”, which opens it). Thus, most of the Stephen Foster songs are in the company of ballads like Haydn Wood’s “Roses of Picardy” (which is actually an English song but was widely sung in the US after World War I) and Walter Damrosch’s catchy, martial setting of Rudyard Kipling’s “Danny Deever”, which was apparently Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite song. Concert songs dominate the middle of the program, with Charles Griffes’ “An Old Song Resung,” telling of a catastrophic shipwreck, echoed just a bit later in the traditional “The E-ri-e Canal”, which humorously uses shipwreck language to tell of an ill-fated canal trip, at the end of which “the crew are all in jail, and I’m the only sea-cook son that’s left to tell the tale.”

Hampson’s powerful and expressive voice brings these songs to life, but, with his extensive experience with German Lieder and other European art song he is equally at home with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s tender “Tomorrow (When you are Gone)”, and John Duke’s slightly spooky “Luke Havergal” (which has been a favorite of mine since I acquired the disc on which it first appeared). Hampson says he began studying American art song in hope of identifying the American Mahler or Schubert, but has come to see in the entire genre a kind of conversation among poets and composers of what it is to be making “America”. Thus, he approaches all the songs with directness and unpretentiousness, which he considers an important quality of American song. So, while Hampson can bring to Leonard Bernstein’s complex “To What You Said” the full artistry with which he approaches Mahler’s songs, he is also fully at home with the fiddle, piano, and backup vocals of long-time “roots music” performers Jay Ungar and Molly Mason as they present arrangements of Stephen Foster’s ballads, in which Hampson sees an attempt to create an American version of Thomas Moore’s Irish ballads. (Foster’s livelier, and possibly more controversial, minstrel songs are not a part of this program, so we hear “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”, but not “Oh Susannah” or “De Camptown Races”, which figure in instrumental medleys on the American Dreamer disc.)

The program closes with settings of Walt Whitman poems about the Civil War, including songs by Kurt Weill and Charles Naginski, and concluding with “Ethiopia Saluting The Colors,” as set by African-American composer Henry Thacker Burleigh. Nowhere is Hampson’s view of the project of American song more focused than in these songs, in which serious composers of varied ethnic backgrounds set words in which the father of American poetry engages with the fundamental episode in America’s development of its identity as a nation.

Information on American Art song in general and the remaining recitals in the Library of Congress series can be found on Thomas Hampson’s website and that of the Library of Congress.

Barbara Miller

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