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American Song Classics

June 2024
1min read

Long Time Ago
American Songs by Aaron Copland

Cheryl Studer, soprano, Thomas Hampson, baritone, John Browning, piano, Emerson String Quartet, Deutsche Grammophon 435 867-2 (two CDs), $31.28 . CODE: BAT-5

Dawn Upshaw, soprano, Thomas Hampson, baritone, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Wolff, Teldec 9031-77310-2 (one CD), $16.96 . CODE: BAT-6

Both of these new collections of small masterpieces by two major American composers feature the Indiana-born baritone Thomas Hampson, a master of all sorts of song, joined by a top American soprano. The results are uniformly superb. Samuel Barber (1910-81) wrote to his mother when he was nine: “I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure…. Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football—please.” He stayed serious, penning the inward, intimate music of a poet of tones, and was at his most compelling when setting poetry he loved. The pianist John Browning began making this album three years ago by recording twenty songs with Hampson; before he was done, Browning was uncovering songs never published, recording all the ones for female voice with the soprano Cheryl Studer, and bringing in the Emerson String Quartet for Barber’s best-known song, a softly unsettling adaptation of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Of the forty-seven songs in all, nine are to wondrously varied words by James Joyce, including a haunting evocation of a couple’s nonmeeting at a country hotel set to an oddly stirring tango tune. An array of others treat clear-eyed but impassioned love poems by Theodore Roethke and Robert Graves. The music throughout is terse and elegant and lovely, the performances and recording as fine as you could hope for.

The Copland disc contains two sets of songs. The first, sung by Hampson, consists of ten archetypal old American songs, orchestrated in open-spirited, utterly accessible, and timeless Copland style. Among them are two minstrel tunes, a humorous 1884 presidential campaign song (“The Dodger”), a lullaby, two ballads (including “Long Time Ago”), and the sweetly pious Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” familiar from Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring . The second set of songs is a collection of eight utterly winning settings of Emily Dickinson poems. Copland’s music highlights and reflects the smooth surfaces and dangerous undercurrents of the poems while retaining all their fresh energy. Dawn Upshaw sings beautifully, and the orchestral playing is precise and warm and full.

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