The CD version of this release from Chicago's Cedille label includes a note from top baritone Thomas Hampson himself, addressing two of the questions listeners may have. The first pertains to how he happened to record for Cedille, which might be characterized as small but scrappy. His answer: he had always admired the label and entertained the idea in a conversation with label president James Ginsburg; he finally went forward after discovering a wealth of interesting and neglected music from Chicago. The second question involves the African American origin of a good deal of the music. Hampson writes: "With the inclusion of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price, some may raise their eyebrows at a Caucasian male attempting to sing this very African American-rooted offering. But my point and answer would be simply, these are, first and foremost, American stories seen through the prism of the African American narrative." Actually, it's not Bonds and Price, in whose work African American idioms were somewhat concealed, who are the issue; their music has often been performed by white artists. Instead, it is the trio of pieces from the Four Negro Songs by John Alden Carpenter, a white composer, that may raise eyebrows, for they are strongly marked by African American dance idioms, blues, and language in the poetry. But these works are settings of poems by Langston Hughes, and they make an effective contrast with the three Hughes settings of Bonds, which are much less African American in style. Carpenter's songs, although strongly marked by black popular idioms, are not straight copies of them. This is a strength of the album: you get Hughes' settings by three different composers, and settings of Walt Whitman by two, all entirely relevant to the reception history of these writers. An even greater strength is the inclusion of works that are all but unknown, and well worth rediscovery. Ernst Bacon and Louis Campbell-Tipton are hardly performed these days, but sample one of the Whitman settings to hear how effectively he applies concision to the words of a writer not known for concision at all. Also intriguing are Carpenter's settings of Rabindranath Tagore, a great poet whose works might well have been known to any composer of the 1920s, but who is not so common these days. It goes without saying that Hampson's singing is gorgeous, and he is ably backed by Chicago pianist Kuang-Hao Huang. An excellent slice of little-known American art song.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
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