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...UPDATE: Fixed, more or less!]

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." [UPDATE: As of March, 2013, this recording was finally removed from Stanford's Wikipedia page, but you can still hear it here.]

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.

Cambridge Singers
MMmusing Piano
Barley's Celli
Multipled Countertenor
New Age Celtic Teen Chanteuse

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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