Sunday, December 11, 2011

Three Spiritual Albums

Leontyne Price by Brian Lanker
I was travelling lately (and leaving this blog somewhat orphaned), but apart from being a professional necessity it also went along well with some sidekick hobbies of mine. When in Vienna recently, I went to one of the most furnished shops for classical music on CD which is situated not far from the State Opera. I left the shop with a brandnew 12 CD box released by SonyClassical. (It's actually not yet out in the US and seems to be released solely in the UK so far). I'm speaking of The Complete Collection of Song and Spiritual Albums by Leontyne Price. For as little as $35 you get here the re-issues of 9 RCA LPs, originally released bet- ween 1955 and 1974 plus 3 CDs from the '90s (including older recordings).

Leontyne Price, May 1958
Most of the albums contained in this CD box cover classical material, mainly Kunstlieder (by Richard Strauss, Robert Schumann, Samuel Barber, Gabriel Fauré, Hugo Wolf and others) and several opera arias; two of the LPs are live recitals from Carnegie Hall. However, three CDs are re-issues of Price's spiritual albums released between 1962 and 1971, and it's to those that I would like to draw your attention. Said albums are:
  1. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: Fourteen Spirituals (RCA LP # 2600), 14 songs recorded at Manhattan Center NYC, Dec. 1961, and released in August 1962.
  2. My Favorite Hymns (RCA LP # 2918), 12 songs recorded at Calvary Episcopal Church NYC, April 1966, and released in November 1966.
  3. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free (RCA LP # LSC-3183), 15 songs recorded at RCA Studio A Nashville, April 1970, and released in January 1971.
Moreover, the Carnegie Recitals recorded in 1965 and 1996 comprise several gospel songs as well, e.g. »This Little Light Of Mine«, »He's Got The Whole World In His Hands« and »Right On, King Jesus«.

Leontyne Price (oil on canvas by Bradley Phillips,
National Portrait Gallery, 1963)
Each of these Sacred Albums is interesting in its own right. The first, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, was recorded when Price's career was about to reach global fame. The cover is graced by one of the portrait paintings which were done of Leontyne Price in the early '60s (see below), and in the liner notes (written by Price) we read: »I have chosen in this album some of the songs dearest to my heart and to those of my parents and friends back home. I remember hearing and singing some of them as a child either in church, sometimes at school, and very often from my mother, who sang or hum- med them as she did her work around the house.« Yet the songs as you hear them on this LP are very far from any downhome style; on the contrary, the lush arrange- ments transformed them into symphonic pieces of operatic gospel arias deluxe: dramatic horns and strings, a Verdi-like wall-of-sound, the entire package.

The songs on the second album, My Favorits Hymns, are much closer to a, well, churchy style of the dignified, hymnic kind. There is a large boys choir, and a stately organ dominates the musical hue. The third album finally, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, is still entirely different. There is some Odetta-feel to the songs here, much simplicity and downhome purity. And we now have a clear political message as well. To tell you the truth, I prefer the last album above the others.

Now, as we are speaking about a recent release available on CD, I cannot play entire songs here. What I can do is provide sort of a teaser of what you may expect if buying this CD box. So you can hear in the following 50-second-extracts from three songs, each one taken from one of the Spiritual albums: »My Soul's Been Anchored In De Lord« (1962), »What A Friend We Have In Jesus« (1966) and »I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free« (1971):

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Left: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (RCA, 1962). Right: My Favorite Hymns (RCA, 1966)

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