Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – Dawn Upshaw

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It seems incredible now that this disc was released over 30 years ago, but there it is, clearly written in the insert, “Recorded August 1988 at Manhattan Center Studios, New york”, though, IIRC, it had a different cover on its first release.

Barber’s wonderfully nostalgic Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a setting of James Agee’s prose-poem has now, it would seem, become quite popular. It was first recorded by its dedicatee, Eleanor Steber in 1950, a couple of years after its premiere, but had to wait another eighteen years before being recorded again, though very successfully by Leontyne Price. It had to wait a further twenty years for this version by Dawn Upshaw, but its success has led to a spate of others by the likes of Barbara Hendricks, Sylvia McNair, Roberta Alexander, Kathleen Battle, Jill Gomez, Karina Gauvin and, most recently, Renee Fleming.

Steber was a wonderful singer, and her version is very fine, but for me it misses the essential childlike quality of the piece and she can sound a bit mature, even a trifle prim. Price, on the other hand, is surprisingly successful at scaling down her rich velvety voice to the needs of the writing, and her version is deservedly well known. Dawn Upshaw, on the other hand, has by nature what Price had to strive for. She has exactly the light voice and direct manner the piece needs and there is no need for her to characterise; she simply has to be herself, her diction natural and unforced. David Zinman’s tempi are also just right, and it is no surprise to find that this version has been a top recommendation since it was first issued.

The rest of the programme is also attractive, its centrepiece being John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, originally written for piano, but here given in his chamber orchestra version. The songs are settings of 16th century devotional Indian poems by Mirabai, who, after her husband died, devoted her life to the God Krishna. The texts are alternatively erotic, ecstatic and devotional, the orchestrations colourful, the vocal range wide and Upshaw is fully up to their demands.

The interesting but quite short programme is rounded off with a couple of operatic pieces, a short extract from Menotti’s radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief, and Anne Trulove’s No word from Tom from Sravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Upshaw would seem perfectly cast in both.

Like most of Upshaw’s records the material chosen is refreshingly different and well worth investigating.