Mosaic: African-American Spirituals

Mosaic: African-American Spirituals
Angela Brown, soprano, with Joseph Joubert (piano) and Tyron Cooper (guitar).
Albany Records TROY721 [CD]

Angela Brown has attracted the attention of those eager for the appearance of the next great Verdi soprano, and she continues to live up to the high expectations. Appearances with the Opera Company of Philadelphia as Leonara in Il Trovatore, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, and Strauss’s Ariadne evoked high praise from local and national critics, and her recent debut as Aida at the Metropolitan Opera was well received. All have noted the powerful and richly expressive voice in early bloom as well as Brown’s commanding stage presence. So this recent recording of spirituals, sung only with guitar or piano accompaniment (they all three contribute to the final “Ride Up in the Chariot”), is an interesting release. Brown is minimizing resources in search of what, in the liner notes, she calls an “intimate recording” of “songs of personal introspection.” The results are a little more mixed than her operatic reception.
The sheer beauty of the voice is never in question. This is a remarkable and wisely used instrument. And Brown occasionally relaxes into her lower register and reveals a bluesy quality that makes the listener wish she would let down her guard more often. Indeed, that is a recurring wish as the disc plays on.
The program has an exuberant opening. “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” co-arranged by Moses Hogan, Brown, and guitarist Tyron Cooper, introduces Brown in a relaxed yet rhythmically driven performance, the voice charged with energy and the guitar intricate but unobtrusive. The next selection, however, seems as if it is by another artist. The voice is heavy and the performance mannered, and Brown for the first time, but not the last, exhibits a tendency to sing a note under pitch until the last nanosecond before releasing it. “My Soul’s Been Anchored” ends with some stunning vocal flourishes – the high notes are rich, clean, and motivated – but “City Called Heaven,” which follows, again reveals a weightier and pitch-challenged sound. This quality persists in “Give Me Jesus” until Brown soars back into the stratosphere for some singing that is lighter and cleaner and highly effective. It is not until the eleventh selection, “Walk Together Children,” that the energy and excitement of the opening track are recalled. Here, as at the top, the tempo and rhythmic demands don’t allow Brown time to get in the way of the song, and the result is unadulterated joy. Much of the remaining performances are nothing special, but “Lord, How Come Me Here” is. This is performed – but never over performed – almost as a dramatic monologue. Brown gives the song-scene musical and dramatic shape, and she uses her voice better here than anywhere else on the recording. This is a singing actress at work, and the results are quite effective. Despite the swinging gospel feel of the guitar and piano on the final track (“Ride Up in the Chariot”), Brown sounds constricted in their company, and the final fadeout seems like a cheat. Perhaps Brown should have saved one of her previous big finishes for the last song.
Essentially a program of encores, this recording would benefit from shuffling. All the guitar collaborations are on the first half, and, after the opening number, they are all slow and contemplative. While Tyron Cooper plays with a wonderful breadth of style and beauty of tone and always provides sensitive collaboration for Brown, a little more variety would make a better program. The guitar-voice balance is always just right; both establish a close but comfortable presence. Pianist Joseph Joubert at first suffers from bad sound engineering – on “Come Down Angels” the piano sounds as if it were in a different room than the microphone — and occasionally his arrangements sound perilously like supper club arrangements. On “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” and “Lord, How Come Me Here,” however, he is a dignified and complimentary partner to Brown, and his playing with Cooper on the last track is thrilling.
Angela Brown is to be applauded for recording a collection of spirituals in such interesting and often excellent settings. Her choice of guitar and piano in mostly small-scale arrangements is a refreshing nod towards the integrity this repertoire demands but doesn’t always get. Incorporating blues and jazz elements into the arrangements adds to the cultural richness of songs already culturally rich. But sometimes it all sounds like work. Much of the time Brown sounds like an opera singer trying to scale down, working from the outside in, as it were. While she mentions, as noted above, that she thinks of these as “songs of personal introspection,” not enough of these performances are introspective. The frequent lack of spontaneity precludes any introspection. This recording might be a labor of love for Ms. Brown, but it still too often sounds like a labor. Still, when it works, the soul soars.
Jim Lovensheimer, Ph.D.
Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University