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Stunning Song Recitals by Two American Opera Stars

Not all opera singers have a flair for performing songs, but Lester Lynch and Jamie Barton are two exceptions. Both of these vocal recitals, captured on CDs, present outstanding singers in their prime, performing works that touch them deeply.  

‘On My Journey Now: Spirituals and Hymns’

Lester Lynch is an operatic baritone renowned for his performances of Verdi operas as well as of modern works, such as Gordon Getty’s “Plump Jack” in which he portrayed the title character. As he explains in the liner notes of his new CD, “On My Journey Now: Spirituals and Hymns” (on Pentatone), he has long hoped to record African-American spirituals and folk hymns, which he has sung since his childhood.

Lynch has a magnificent voice and sings these songs with tremendous feeling. He takes a fresh approach with new arrangements that he created with the pianist on the recording, Victor Simonson, and others. Also, the instrumentation is varied, including the ART Singers and the Oakland School of the Arts Ensemble under the direction of Alexander Ramses Taite as well as piano, organ, acoustic guitar, violin, trumpet, harmonica, drum, and djembe (a West African goblet drum).

Six of the 24 songs use arrangements by H.T. Burleigh (1866-1949), including the deeply emotional “Were You There (“When They Crucified my Lord”) and “Deep River,” and some are adapted from Burleigh’s original arrangements (“Go Down Moses” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.”)

An explanatory essay by Jane Scovell places the songs in historical context. She divides the pieces into the following categories: plantation and slavery songs, religious and Bible songs, and songs of hope and freedom.

The longing for freedom is also the coded message in many of the religious songs, for example, “Go Down Moses” (where the slaves identified with the Israelites breaking free of their bondage). The same is true of “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”

“My Tribute (To God Be the Glory)” was written in 1972 by gospel singer and songwriter Andraé Crouch. Lynch dedicates the recording to his late sister, Lucinda.

Two songs by Caucasians fit in with the rest of the program: “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton (1725-1807), a reformed slave trader, and the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” were penned by the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) and set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

Another notable feature of the album is the artwork on the cover and in the liner notes by Jonathan Green.

“On My Journey Now” provides a message of hope and redemption in troubled times.

‘All Who Wander’

Two of the standout performances at the Metropolitan Opera this season have been by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton: as the witch Jezibaba in Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” and Fenena in Verdi’s “Nabucco.” The rising star has won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and received the Richard Tucker Award and the Marian Anderson Award.

Barton has released her debut solo album, “All Who Wander” (on Delos) and the CD reveals another side of her art.

The vocal recital, with the excellent Brian Zenger on piano, is comprised of songs in three languages by Mahler, Dvorak, and Sibelius. Barton wrote the liner notes in which she expresses her love of art songs of late 19th century and especially of these composers.

The CD begins with Mahler’s Five Rückert Songs (which were actually composed in 1901–1902) followed by three more by the composer. Dvorák’s “Gypsy Songs” are more spirited and sung with real zest. The Sibelius songs are haunting with their evocations of black roses and March snow.

Spellbinding from beginning to end and all performed with that luscious voice, this is an album lovers of art songs will treasure. Delos treats the artists and material with proper respect, including in the liner notes all the original lyrics and translations.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.

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