Return: Art Songs From Carolina. Marilyn Taylor, soprano, & Robert Brewer, piano; Albany Troy 627; ©2001; 61:36; $16.95 .

This recording contains five groups of songs by three composers from or living in North Carolina. The bookend sets are by Jacksonville, NC, native Kenneth Frazelle (b.1955), member of the faculty of the NC School of the Arts, as is Taylor. (Pianist Brewer, an organist and choirmaster in Houston, TX, is the only contributor with seemingly no connection to the state.) Opening are the first three (and first composed) folk song settings from Frazelle’s Appalachian Songbook (which contains eight in all). They are characterized by delightful and unusually creative piano accompaniments beneath the traditional tunes, a feature that also distinguishes the closing, and contrasting (because much more modern in style) three-song cycle Return , to texts by A.R. Ammons, from which the album derives its title.

The central group is Robert Ward’s thematically and stylistically traditional Love’s Seasons , to poems by Edna St.Vincent Millay. Cleveland native Ward (b.1917), the former president of the NCSA and retired Mary Duke Biddle Professor of Music at Duke University, has been in NC for 35 years. He completed this five-song cycle that recounts a romantic relationship in 1997, though he had first conceived it and made some initial settings some 60 years earlier.

Surrounding this lovely centerpiece are the bright, recently uncovered gems that make this CD really special: two groups of six songs each (of the 40+ output) by Charles Vardell, Jr. (1893-1962). A Salisbury, NC, native, son of the founder of the Flora MacDonald Conservatory of Music, Linda Lee Rumple Vardell, who was his first teacher, he was for many years Dean of Salem College’s School of Music, and then of Flora MacDonald College in Red Springs (later incorporated into St. Andrews College in Laurinburg; […*]), of which his father was the founding president. The songs date from 1918-21, before administrative duties took up most of his time, unfortunately for us if these are true indications of his gifts. They are quite varied, each in a different tradition, ranging from Scotch-Irish tunes reminiscent of Haydn’s and Beethoven’s settings, English Renaissance songs, German Romantic lieder, and French Impressionist melodies, to the styles of his American predecessors like MacDowell and Griffes. They range in form from ballads to love songs to ditties to humorous, almost cabaret-like numbers, and set texts by Thomas Heywood, Robert Southey, William Blake, Amy Lowell, and obscure or unknown poets, including one by its dedicatee and singer of its première. They constitute a wonderful revelation in spite of their being highly derivative.

Taylor is a superb artist with impressive talents; she varies her vocal qualities and interpretive styles appropriately to fit each song like a glove. Brewer is an excellent collaborative partner, neither being intrusive and overpowering or completely disappearing behind the voice. The recorded sound is fine. The booklet contains excellent notes by Taylor about the genesis of the CD, the composers, and the songs, and artist bios, as well as the song texts. It is further enhanced by photos on the front and back covers respectively of the Deep River and the tombstone of the real Naomi Wise, both mentioned in the opening Frazelle song of that title. You don’t often get closer to perfection than you do with this package.

This CD is a “must have” for aficionados of the American art song. It is, indeed, the only way you can get the Vardell songs, for save one now out of print, they have never been published. Editing and publishing them (along with his other works, which include a symphony, orchestral, piano and organ pieces) would be a worthy project for some NC music faculty member or university press. They alone are worth the price of the CD; the other songs are terrific bonuses!

[*Link previously provided expired with change in webmaster of o/a 10/10/02….]