Song of America II
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Craig Rutenberg (piano), Wolfram Rieger (piano)
Tom Hampson is a fellow who isn’t easily deterred. Not content to wait upon the vagaries of major record labels and their A&R managers, he started his own Hampsong Foundation to promote intercultural understanding through song, specifically through the preservation of our own rich (and somewhat neglected) heritage of American songs. “Wondrous Free” is Part 2 of a series begun last year with “Song of America,” both of which are available through his own website at thomashampson.com. If anything, this collection is even richer than its predecessor.
The program begins with the classic simplicity of he title song, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” by Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), said to be America’s earliest composer of note, and continues up to the present. With his honest, clear baritone possessed of an impressively wide range, especially in the upper register, Hampson does a splendid job shaping the contours of the familiar folksong “Shenandoah” (arr. Stephen White, b.1943); instead of drawing out the long vowels in the word “Missouri,” he foreshortens it at the end, giving the listener the un-familiar heart-stopping emotion of witnessing something that has disappeared forever. Only Hampson could take a really sentimental song like Stephen Collins Foster’s “Nelly was a Lady” or Charles Ives’ version of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and not make it drip with cheap sentimentality. Try singing the lyrics “Seldom from her eyelids / were the teardrops banished” or “Ring the bell for lovely Nell / my dark Virginny bride” without waxing schmaltzy, and you’ll see what I mean!
Some of the finest specimens of genuine art song on this album are three settings by John Duke of poems by Edward Arlington Robinson, “Richard Cory,” “Luke Havergal,” and “Miniver Cheevy.” These are rare instances in which great poetry meets with musical arrangements that do it justice. “Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal / where the vines cling crimson on the wall / and in the twilight wait for what will come. / The leaves will whisper there of her, and some / like flying words will strike you as they fall; / But go, and if you listen she will call.” Surely those lines are the perfect metaphor for death and the pain of separation. Hampson handles them with the dignity and the unadorned emphasis they deserve.
Death, as a matter of fact, is a common denominator of many of these songs (There’s nothing like a wake to bring out the best in American poets). William Grant Still’s “Grief,” to a text by LeRoy V. Brant is in this tradition: “Weeping angel with pinions trailing, / the white dove, promise, stands!” So are Ives’ setting of John McCrae’s famous lyric “In Flander’s Fields,” Edward MacDowell’s “The Sea,” with its premonition of the seafaring lover’s death, and Foster’s “Hard Times,” with lyrics particularly meaningful for contemporary listeners: “Many days you have lingered around my cabin door, / O! Hard times, hard times, come again no more.” Paul Bowles’ Blue Mountain Ballads (1946) are distinguished settings of four lyrics, some poignant, some saucy, all pithy, by Tennessee Williams. “Cabin” just may be my favorite: “Now the cabin falls / to the winter wind / and the walls cave in / where they kissed and sinned. // And the long white rain / sweeps clean the room / Like a white-haired witch / with a long straw broom1″
Sidney Homer’s 1926 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” captures all the spirit of its high-spirited original: “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum / (Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” The tub-thumping piano accompaniment to the rousing vocal line would have been to Lindsay’s delight: the last thing he wanted was for his poetry to be read silently in the solitude of one’s den or study. It was to be recited, and with fervor. Tom Hampson’s stirring rendition of this song makes the listener want to rise up and enlist as a Salvationist! And the sheer vocal gymnastics Hampson employs in his rendition of the first part of Ives’ “Memories,” with its conveying of the breathless emotions of two young people “sitting in the opera house, the opera house, the opera house / A-waiting for the curtain to arise” is something I wouldn’t dare try at home, even in the shower!
One of the most memorable moments in the recital is Hampson’s pure, dignified version of “Sing God a Simple Song (Lauda, Laude)” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971). That, and the songs “God Be in My Heart” (Elinor Remick Warren, to an anonymous 16th Century lyric) and “A Time for Farewell” (Jay Ungar/Cleo Laine) with its gently lilting rhythm, are likely to leave the listener in a mood of love and generosity toward all of mankind. (In my case, the feeling did not extend as far as the Republican Party. Even the magic of great music has its limits.)