Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Subspecies of the Blue Bird

[The music player that was embedded in this post no longer functions; needs updating. Apologies. Will try to fix some time...]

After posting yesterday's piano version of Stanford's The Blue Bird, I wondered what readily available recordings might be out there for the curious reader who'd never heard it sung before. I already pointed to the fantastic Cambridge Singers' version, downloadable via iTunes, but, wondering if some might prefer not to invest the $0.99 required, I wandered over to Wikipedia and discovered that Stanford's bio page features one audio file - and it is, of course, The Blue Bird. This is good, I thought. Then I listened and, well . . . it's not really the blue bird I've come to know and love.

There turns out to be a reasonable explanation for this - the performance is a multi-track recording in which a single countertenor performs all the parts. I mean, it's an impressive accomplishment, sort of (actually the "sopranos" sound much better than the tenors and basses, but there's some sketchy intonation and some frightening vowel sounds), but I kind of resent that Wikipedia allows this to be the aural representative of Stanford's little masterpiece. I snooped around the Wikipedia page history a bit and discovered other complaints, but apparently the Wikipedia reasoning is that 'tis "better to have something free and bad than nothing at all."

So, seek that out at your own risk. Coincidentally, another recording I've run across also features just one performer in a multi-tracked performance. The English cellist Matthew Barley has recorded an entire CD of himself as cello orchestra, and the results are much more professional and seamless than the countertenor's - in fact, it's quite remarkable how well Barley has pulled this off, although I'd like it better if his bluebird didn't slide so often. It's fascinating to compare this ultra-rich version with my little barebones piano account.

I've mentioned many times that I love all the complex identity issues involved when considering a "work" in various transcriptions/ translations. Below, you can sample the way in which these wildly different sonorities and settings depict the same little bird. I even threw in a sample of the multitracking countertenor, plus a schmaltzy version by Charlotte Church's apparent heir apparent. Still, I think the simplicity of the piano really holds it own, biased though I may be.

Speaking of impressive multitrack performances, you should check out Doug Yeo's one-of-a-kind recording of The 1812 Overture, with Doug playing all parts on the serpent, that crazy, half-forgotten instrument. Doug is the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony, and I've gotten to know him a bit, although I've never heard him play the serpent live. The Tchaikovsky is something else, but I'm just as glad he didn't try doing this with The Blue Bird.

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