DREAMS OF A NEW DAY / SNEED: I Dream a World. BURLEIGH: 5 Songs of Lawrence Hope. ADAMS: Amazing Grace. M. BONDS: 3 Dream Portraits. KERR: Riding to Town. OKPEBHOLO: 2 Black Churches. OWENS: Mortal Storm. FARIÑA: Birmingham Sunday / Will Liverman, bar; Paul Sánchez, pno / Çedille CDR 200
African-American baritone Will Liverman gives here a program of songs written and/or arranged by black composers. Although there are a few familiar names here—Henry Burleigh, Margaret Bonds and Robert Owens—most of these composers are unfamiliar to me. Conspicuous by his absence is William Grant Still.
Liverman has an extraordinarily rich and powerful voice with just a bit of loose vibrato, enough to notice but not enough to yet be a problem. He also has pretty clear diction, thank goodness. My readers know how frequently I chastise modern singers, particularly British and American, whose English diction simply cannot be understood when they perform. Since they’re singing words, diction is important.
Interestingly, the first song, by young (b. 1979) Damien Sneed, is quite tonal and lyrical in form. Burleigh’s music is also tonal, of course, since he was a member of an earlier generation of composers, but there is considerable tonal interest in the construction of these five songs. I found this interesting since Burleigh himself, who also went by the name of Harry T., was himself a baritone who recorded spirituals. Burleigh’s own voice, at least as it comes across on acoustic recordings made when he was around age 50, was thinner and more nasal than Liverman’s. As I listened to these songs, I was deeply impressed by Liverman’s musical sensitivity and vocal control. Unlike so many modern baritones, he has a gorgeous mezza-voce which he uses to great effect to underscore the sensitivity of several lines in these songs. Here is a singer who I hope to also hear someday in opera; he clearly has great musicianship and a personal style in which he uses the full range of his voice, both in terms of its compass and in its superb control of dynamics. (He was scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera debut this year as Leporello, Papageno and Horemhab in Akhnaten, but Covid-19 has scotched those plans.)
Listen particularly to Burleigh’s Till I Wake for an example of what I mean. Your average modern baritone would perhaps try to modulate his voice in a song like this, but Liverman colors and shades his tones with the assurance of a master. He is a artistic and as communicative in his own way as was the late, great Jon Vickers. Like Vickers, Liverman has worked so much on his voice that he makes the difficult sound easy which, as Vickers once said, he considered to be “true bel canto.”
I’m sure that, since this is a recital designed to represent emancipation of African-Americans and hopes for a bright future, Liverman is simply attempting to communicate these songs as well as he can, but as a listener twice removed in time and space from the recording experience, I am absolutely in awe of what he can do with his voice. I was surprised and delighted by Leslie Adams’ Amazing Grace, a quite complex song that is not the more familiar and very simple-sounding spiritual that has been done to death.
Pianist Paul Sánchez is also excellent, playing with fervor and commitment even though most of these songs do not have the most challenging or complex accompaniments. One exception is Thomas Kerr’s Riding to Town, which puts more of a demand on the pianist. Shawn E. Okpebholo’s Two Black Churches, which has even more modern harmony, is a world premiere recording. The second of these, The Rain, addresses the shooting up of black churches and the sickening continuation of racism in America. The program ends with Liverman’s own excellent arrangement of Richard Fariña’s Birmingham Sunday.
The only real criticism I can make about this recording is the excess reverb around Liverman’s voice. This seems to be a technique that far too many record labels enjoy using nowadays, and for me it is a bit too much. I would have preferred a little less cavernous sound on the CD.
But folks, let me tell you, this is an extraordinary display of singing and interpretation. Liverman is a great communicator, and this album should put him at the very top of young American baritones.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)