Age of Wonders

Works by living composer Michael Stimpson, inspired by Charles Darwin


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Catalogue Number: 5060192780741



CRITICS CHOICE – Jesse Owens (1913–1980), the legendary African–American track-and-field athlete, grew up in poverty in Alabama but went on to win four gold medals—an unprecedented achievement—at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. (This reportedly displeased Hitler, who expected the Games to be a display of Aryan athletic superiority.) British composer Michael Stimpson’s opera about Owens is represented here by five tracks of incidental music for full orchestra, and eight songs in reductions for soprano, baritone, and piano. The songs provide a good overview of both Jesse’s triumphs and his struggles. Stimpson’s expressive, immediately accessible music reveals hints of the blues and period popular music, but mostly it has a firm classical grounding, evoking the dignity and historical importance of Owens’s life and achievements. The haunting and mournful “Home” starts with a slow, steady bass ostinato as the middle-aged Jesse (baritone Johnny Herford) and his wife Minnie (soprano Abigail Kelly) pay tribute to Jesse’s hardworking father, who could barely make ends meet as a sharecropper. Both Herford and Kelly sing with stirring dramatic depth, and they blend well. Next comes a bouncy, breathlessly flirty number as young Jesse and Minnie meet in junior high school; Herford and Kelly do a nice job of lightening their voices to play the kids. The third number, “Minnie’s Song,” is a standout, set in the wistful mode of G harmonic minor, as she contemplates what exactly she loves in Jesse. Kelly gives an arresting, well-controlled performance of this gentle but emotionally probing number, all the way up to a very expressive high C. She also has a strong turn as the ghost of Luz Long, a German athlete who helped Jesse prepare for his long jump event. “Jim Crowe” (with Kelly singing the part of Jesse’s coach) features some affecting duet singing about “them poplar trees” that make no judgments about a person’s skin color. “Four world records” begins as an excited family scene just after Jesse’s historic showing at the Big Ten Track and Field Championships in 1935. It ends, however, much more fraught, as Jesse reflects, “It all counts for nothing / If the battle over myself ain’t the battle I win.” “Money lies” covers some of the indignities Jesse suffered upon returning home after his Olympic wins. Disappointment and domestic strife are treated with encroaching dissonance and starker textures. Despite unusual passages like this, all the deliberately paced, tonally similar laments run together after a while; as a result, the closing duet, “The empty stadium,” doesn’t have the impact it should. The five tracks of incidental music, however—sumptuously played by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Stuart Stratford—indicate that the complete work contains plenty of variety. This collection thus proves to be a good argument for a complete recording of the full opera. The five Preludes In Our Time, performed nimbly by the skilled and sensitive pianist Megumi Fujita (who is also the pianist for the vocal selections), offer further evidence of Stimpson’s versatility, and some welcome forays into rhythmically and harmonically spikier territory. (Opera News)

Track listing
  1. The Man Who Walked with Henslow
  2. String Quartet No.2 – I – Outbound
  3. String Quartet No.2 – II – Inbound
  4. An Entangled Bank – I – Down House
  5. An Entangled Bank – II – Origins
  6. An Entangled Bank – III – Publication
  7. Transmutations – I – Inheritance
  8. Transmutations – II – Olivacea
  9. Transmutations – III – Fragmentation
  10. Transmutations – IV – Decomposition
  11. Readings and interviews – Introduction to Robert Tear
  12. Readings and interviews – Early Life
  13. Readings and interviews – Voyage of the Beagle
  14. Readings and interviews – A Country Home
  15. Readings and interviews – Darwin’s Piano
  16. Readings and interviews – The Rush to Publication
  17. Readings and interviews – Later Years