7/5/11

Joel Fredericksen Gives American Music a Classical Sound


JOEL FREDERIKSEN and Ensemble Phoenix Munich

Rose of Sharon: 100 ears of American Music 1770-1870

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902085

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Operatic bass, lutenist, and classical conductor Joel Frederiksen turns his attention to American traditional music on Rose of Sharon. For those whose mythology and/or Bible skills are weak, the rose of Sharon is not just a flower; it’s also some times used as a symbol of Jesus (based on a particular reading of Solomon 2:1). The quasi-religious references explain why part of this album features sacred music, in this case shape note singing, Shaker hymns, and spirituals.

The hook is that Frederiksen wants to feature music from the 17th and 18th centuries, as he puts it, like “an American quilt;” in other words, he wishes to form a unified portrait from different pieces. We get the meeting of sacred--the three aforementioned themes--plus songs from the Revolutionary War era, early choral traditions, and the Civil War--a program with six parts and thirty songs. It’s an ambitious effort that works well in places and seems a bit naff in others. As one might expect of a classical ensemble, the voices and instruments are sublime. Whether they are always appropriate is another matter. To my ear, classical treatments of folk material often sound bombastic and/or ponderous. Hearing a dramatic, but trained voice belt out songs such as “Captain Kidd” just sounds wrong, and when you know a song such as “The Gentleman Soldier” from Steeleye Span and then listen to Frederiksen’s version, the latter sounds like the a bad PBS special. Ditto songs such as “Dance Me a Jig,” a tune that’s best when one lets down one’s hair rather than buttoning one’s waistcoat.

All of this is to say that Rose of Sharon works best on the songs that were arranged for more serious treatment in the first place, to wit, most of the religious songs. The ensemble and Frederiksen sound great on shape note selections such as “Northfield” and “Wondrous Love,” and Frederiksen is almost Paul Robeson-like on spirituals such as “Sinner Man.” Needless to say, the ensemble is in their m├ętier when performing choral music mined from the Billings collection.

How much you enjoy this release depends entirely on your taste for classical treatments of folk music. I’m neutral on that subject, but seldom enthusiastic, which pretty much sums up my view of Rose of Sharon. It’s a good-of-kind recording, though I generally like to hear this material in rootsier and rawer forms. I’d also like to take umbrage with the label’s assertion that Frederiksen is interpreting “rarely heard” American music. Really, folks, you need to get away from the recital hall more often; I’ve known all of these songs for many a year!

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