November 2004

William Bolcom - Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Soloists, University of Michigan orchestras and choruses, Leonard Slatkin cond.
Naxos 8.559216-18 (three CDs, with text)
Released: 2004

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment *****

William Bolcom regards his Songs of Innocence and of Experience as "the chief source and progenitor" of all his other compositions. This phenomenal setting of William Blake’s poems occupied him for some 26 years; it calls for ten vocal soloists, adult and children’s choruses, symphony orchestra, rock band, harmonicas, cowboy fiddler -- nearly 500 performers in all -- and runs nearly two and a half hours. It has had fewer than ten performances since its premiere in Stuttgart in 1984, but has at last been recorded, affording worldwide access for listeners who have only heard about it till now.

In a gesture that indicates the significance of the work and the commitment it has inspired, a faculty colleague of Bolcom’s at the University of Michigan, Michael Daugherty, initiated the project to make this "live" recording in the same hall at the University of Michigan in which the American premiere took place 20 years earlier. The performance benefits from the campus-based resources for rehearsals, which extended over a period of months. The conductor was Leonard Slatkin, a longtime champion of Bolcom’s music who had presided over about half of the work’s prior performances. Space limitations prevent me from even listing all the other participants; among the soloists are the superb soprano Christine Brewer; Nathan Lee Graham, a knockout as both singer and speaker; and two veterans of earlier performances: Bolcom’s wife, the mezzo Joan Morris, with whom he has collaborated for years in their remarkable showcasing of American popular song, and Slatkin’s wife, the soprano Linda Hohenfeld.

The timing indicates the performance would have fit easily on two discs, but the three-disc layout makes for a clear division between the "Innocence" and "Experience" sections. At the Naxos price, under $24, it is a great buy, thoroughly satisfying musically and sonically, with the composer’s own updated notes, full texts and a clear indication of who sings what. No mere stopgap, this is an out-and-out definitive triumph, surely the most important production yet offered on this label, and not likely to be trumped.