Soprano Harolyn Blackwell's debut solo album Strange Hurt combines two half-hour song cycles, each containing ten pieces, running about half-an-hour, and written by musical theater composers Maury Yeston (December Songs) and Ricky Ian Gordon (Genius Child). The Carnegie Hall Corporation commissioned Yeston to write December Songs (inspired by Schubert's "Winterreise," aka "Winter Journey") in honor of Carnegie Hall's Centennial Season, and Andrea Marcovicci premiered it at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall on April 16, 1991, then gave it its first recording in May 1992. It is, as might be expected, a wistful work. Yeston's background in the musical theater certainly comes through in the sense of character and the suggestions of stories in the songs, but the cycle does not add up to a single plot, nor do the songs necessarily seem to be sung by a single female character. But the sensibility is consistent, as the singer alternately longs for romance and fears it, when she isn't recalling a past love or reflecting on other sentimental subjects. The music is more substantial and inventive than the lyrics, although it is easy to imagine one of these songs turning up in a theatrical production. (In fact, there are certain similarities to Andrew Lloyd Webber's more story-driven Tell Me on a Sunday, presented on Broadway as part of the musical Song and Dance.) In Blackwell's reading, the music is accentuated, one reason being that it has been orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick for a small group including pianist Kenneth Bowen, cellist Seymour Barab, clarinetist John J. Moses, and harpsichord player Lee Musiker, with either a second clarinet played by Vincent J. Abato or an oboe or English horn played by Robert B. Ingliss. The original version featured only a piano accompaniment. But the main reason the music wins out over the lyrics is that Blackwell, unlike Marcovicci, a cabaret singer, is more interested in the sound of her own voice than the meaning of the words. This is typical of an opera singer, of course, but it reduces the emotional force of December Songs in favor of aural beauty. The same might be said of the Genius Child songs, which are Gordon's musical settings of a series of short poems by Langston Hughes. Here, little in the way of character or story are being attempted, and there are far fewer words, only Warren Jones' piano and Blackwell's lovely soprano voice, making for a semi-classical recital piece.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann