The American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) is best-known for his large-scale setting of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience," which is available on a 3-CD Naxos set. This new collection of Bolcom's songs also on Naxos shows the composers's lifelong fascination with Blake. It includes an early lyrical setting of Blake's poem, "Mary" which deals with a beautiful and intelligent young woman and her rejection by her society. In the several torch and cabaret-style works it includes, the collection also shows Bolcom's attempts to fuse classical with popular styles of music. Bolcom also has done so in his piano music, much of which is heavily influenced by ragtime.
The songs on this CD are performed and selected by soprano Carole Farley with Bolcom himself at the piano. Ms. Farley has also recorded for Naxos' "American classics" series a selection of the songs of Ned Rorem with Rorem at the piano. Ms. Farley and Naxos are doing listeners a service by introducing them to the world of the American art song.
The highlight of this CD is the 20-minute song-cycle "I will breathe a mountain" in which Bolcom sets 11 poems by American women. The poems were selected by Alice Fulton, and they include Fulton's own "I will swing those obligatos around" in which the young singer describes a come-on from a boor. The song writing is declamatory in character with many twists, turns, and shouts in the vocal line. Only the setting of H.D.'s "Never More Will the Wind" is lyrical and flowing. Besides Fulton and H.D. the settings include poems by Millay, Gwendolwn Brooks (a poem called "The Crazy Woman" with appropriately wild shrieks) Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore (listen to what Ms. Farley makes of the poets wish to be a DRA' GON), Emily Dickinson (in a moving poem of the stillness of a home after death),Louise Bogan, May Swenson, and Elizabeth Bishop. "I will breathe a mountain" is an outstanding and moving contemporary American song-cycle and is in itself sufficient reason for hearing this recording.
The CD also includes a second exquisite cycle, "Songs to Dance" which sets ten miniature poems by George Montgomery. This is a work to be danced as well as sung, and it has apparently been performed live only once, by the composer, his wife, the soprano Joan Morris, and dancer, Dan Wagoner. It has never been recorded before. The work deserves to be heard and seen.
Many of the remaining works on this CD are cabaret-style theatrical pieces that Bolcom composed in collaboration with lyricist Arnold Weinstein. The best of these are two torch songs from a show called "Casino Paradise": Night Make my Day (a parody of the torch style which is sometimes performed straight) and "My Father the Gangster", in which a young woman laments how men are, understandably, worried about her father and afraid to approach her. The collection opens with a scream by Ms. Farley in the erotic novelty "You cannot have me now", about the affairs of the wife of a German officer, sung with a heavily inflected German accent and also set to words by Weinstein.
I enjoyed Bolcom's short setting of May Swenson's poem "The Digital Wonder Watch" with the tick-ticking in the piano. This song is a satire of technology, with the poet describing the features of her "wonderful watch" while asking: "Does it show how to wind up/a broken heart?" The other songs on the CD include the passionate "The Last Days of Mankind", conceived for rock singer Marianne Faithful, two eloquent settings of poems by Richard Tillinghast, and four concluding early collaborations between Bolcom and Weinstein.
This CD offers an opportunity to explore the world of American song in the works of a leading contemporary composer. The cycle, "I will breathe a mountain" will be a lasting achievement in American art song.