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Recordings

George London: Spirituals
13 Dec 2006

George London: Spirituals

Previously unreleased, this collection of Spirituals never received the approval of the Canadian-born bass-baritone George London (1920-85) for release when it was prepared in 1963.

George London: Spirituals

George London, Singgemeinschaft Rudolf Lamy, Members of the Orchestra of the Bavarian State Radio Rhythm Section, Carl Michalski (cond.)

Deutsche Grammophon 477 619-3 [CD]

$11.98  Click to buy

The plans for the release appear to have been far along to include plans for sides “A” and “B” of the LP, since that information is included on the cover. Over forty years later, the recording is available on CD. Issued in the same format as some of Deutsche Grammophon’s reissues of material that had been released on CD, this recording resembles them in the minimal information that accompanies the music. Thus, the terse blurb on the back cover mentions the fact that London would end most of his recitals with a spiritual as background to support the recordings with orchestra and chorus that he made in 1963. The notes mention the fact that London was not happy with the result, but go no further in explaining the reasons.

As self-critical as the bass may have been, this recording shows him in fine voice in some lively arrangements of traditional American spirituals. Given London’s other pursuits at the time, speculation may extend to the image the singer wanted to convey to the larger public that knew him as an outstanding exponent of Wagner’s music and a fine portrayer of the title role of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Perhaps the sometimes popular-sounding arrangements, like “Joshua fit de battle of Jericho,” did not fit the image the singer wanted to convey. Or maybe the racial connotations of the music did not sit well with the politics of the time, when sensitive white individuals would not presume to present on their own terms music that is part of the black experience.

As arrangements, though, the presentation of this selection of popular spirituals is articulate and sensitive. At times the choral textures sometimes echo the style sometimes used for Christmas specials of the time, with “Hebb’n” sounding as though it were taken from a Broadway musical. In the subtler arrangements, as in “Poor, wayfarin’ stranger,” the discreet chorus and thinner orchestration is striking. Likewise, the inclusion of organ is highly evocative in “Oh, what a beautiful city,” an arrangement that could be performed more frequently to good effect.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to fault the execution, especially London’s articulate rendering of the melodies with his resonant and smooth bass voice. With the opening song, “Swing low, sweet chariot,” he gives a sense of the richness of the source. This is a serious and persuasive interpretation that London bears out in the other numbers. Whether this is authentic is another matter, and it’s best to understand the stylization implicit with arrangements removes spirituals from the living tradition in which they exist. Even with a black singers like Florence Quivar in her collection entitled Ride on, King Jesus (on EMI), arrangements are a step removed from the churches in which this music finds spontaneous expression in performance, and not necessarily in being performed from four-square execution.

Even so, the starkness of “Hard trials” can be found only in an arrangement like the deft one found in this collection. In fact, the more familiar “Deep river” makes fine use of the chorus to enhance the character of the piece. With the chorus of the Bavarian State Radio at his disposal, London worked with some excellent forces to compile this CD. All of these pieces lie well for London, whose resonant voice commands attention throughout the recording. This is a side of the singer’s career that is not well known, but nevertheless relevant for the interest London had in this repertoire. For whatever reasons London had in proscribing the release of this recording during his lifetime, it should not be taken for any over reasons in his performances. While audiences will always remember London for his Boris, his Wotan, his Scarpia, and other familiar opera roles, his interest in spirituals took shape in a recording that benefits from this posthumous release.

James L. Zychowicz

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