William Bolcom sets to music Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

by | May 31, 2005 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

WILLIAM BOLCOM: Songs of Innocence and of Experience (William
Blake) – 13 Vocal Soloists/Choirs/University of Michigan School of
Music Symphony Orchestra/University Musical Society/Leonard Slatkin –
Naxos American Classics DVD-Audio 5.110083-84 (2 disc set), 2:17:11,

I reviewed the standard CD version of this song cycle in December of
last year and though I didn’t mention it in the review I was thinking
surely this huge undertaking was recorded multichannel at the same time
and perhaps we’ll eventually hear a hi-res version of it. Well, here it
is, and with the extended time length of DVD-As as opposed to SACD and
CD, only two discs are required whereas the CD version required three.
While some of the songs are set very simply, with just a single voice
and accompaniment of one or two instruments, others involve all the
myriad forces listed above – on a level of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. These
produce dense choral/orchestral textures that are really too much for
44.1 PCM.  Now with DVD-A such sections have considerably more
impact and immerse the listener in the hall sound. Especially effective
is the instrumental Nocturne which opens Part III of the Songs of
Innocence.  It is mainly fairly quiet percussive sounds such as
wood blocks, but it clearly illuminates the hall reverberation. The
different unexpected sounds in Bolcom’s wildly eclectic score are
enhanced due to their spatial qualities. And you have one less disc to
get up and change. 

Here’s the original review of the CD set:

This massive song cycle has been composer Bolcom’s preoccupation for
many years and he was unsure the entire piece would ever be recorded
following its original premiere 20 years ago. It involves over 450
musicians and takes well over two hours – outdoing even Mahler on
length. Bolcolm had worked on the piece over a period of 25 years. Its
stimulus was the composer’s fascination with Blake’s 46 poems which
traverse a wide range of feelings and emotions, from childlike
innocence to the experiences of adult life. Bolcom determined at age 17
that he would set all of the poems to music eventually, and he did.

Blake espoused the principle of contraries – good vs. evil, dark vs.
light, etc. and Bolcom made this central to all his compositions – not
just this one. He is known for shifting suddenly in many of his works
from an academic serial style to a rocking boogie-woogie or corny march
tune – you name it. Just as Blake matched his ideas to a wide variety
of poetic diction, Bolcom matches the words to a variety of unexpected
musical styles. The Shepherd’s Song comes a country and western tune,
the Divine Image finale a reggae. And the various pop-culture music
sounds very sincere and listenable – not just an attempt to shock. If
you ever envisioned Tyger, tyger, Burning Bright with music, here it
is. Various guest soloists were brought in for some of these
non-classical contrasting sections – a folk/blues performer, a gospel
singer, a harmonica player, for example. And the harmonica is not the
only instrument Bolcolm adds to the orchestra that is not normally
found there. As he noted in the program for the work’s premiere,
“…Blake used his whole culture…high-flown and vernacular, as
sources for his many poetic styles…all I did was use the same
stylistic point of departure Blake did in my musical settings.”

 One critic called the work “the greatest achievement of synthesis
in American music since Porgy and Bess.” In spite of its great size the
work had 16 complete performances including its l984 premiere in
Stuttgart, Germany. The key to getting it recorded was the cooperation
of both the many musical forces at the University of Michigan Music
Department, where Bolcom teaches, and of Naxos Records. Recording it
live and with many non-professional performers also made it possible
for this 3-CD set to be issued. And to retain the participation of
noted conductor Leonard Slatkin, whose discography numbers over 100
recordings. But the performing level of all participants is very high
and the sound excellent – though with such large forces it is
unfortunate it can’t be heard in multichannel. This may be a mongrel
masterpiece, but is thrillingly originative and certainly never boring.
You might want to listen to it one CD at a time, there’s so much going
on in each section of the work.

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