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Mountain Songs - A Cycle of American Folk Music



With Mountain Songs, Robert Beaser continues the distinguished line of 20th-century composers who have tapped the wellsprings of folk heritage. From Bartók to Berio composers have been fascinated by the archetypal power of the musical vernacular and have tried to fuse their own styles with the unique spirit of folk music. Many of the tunes themselves are well known, either through performances by such important artists as Pete Seeger or from having been heard around the local campfire. In Mountain Songs they are once again transformed, and the result is both familiar and wholly new. This recording is rounded out with works by American composers from Stephen Foster to Chick Corea, in arrangements for guitar and flute by Eliot Fisk, which beautifully complement the Mountain Songs.

Mountain Songs - A Cycle of American Folk Music


It’s sobering to reflect that it’s nearly a quarter of a century ago that Eliot Fisk, and Paula Robison, collaborated on this album for MusicMasters. It appears in Nimbus livery now, bearing the original 54 minute timing of an LP, though that shouldn’t especially worry the admirers, in particular, of the fecund Fisk. Good performances don’t date, and it’s hardly feasible to add anything to an established programme such as this.

The centrepiece of the programme is taken by Robert Beaser’s Mountain Songs whose fondness for Appalachian songs is palpable. Many will recognise English, Irish and Scottish ballads transplanted into a Newfoundland land. Barbara Allen for instance is given a cautiously wistful patina, with discreet taps on the body of the guitar, whereas we have a vibrant and fast moving setting of House Carpenter. One of the most successful of these eight settings is He’s Gone Away. Here melancholic yearning is contrasted with faster, cocksure passages, neatly reflecting the ballad’s duality. Paula Robison plays a piccolo in The Cuckoo which sports rather more convoluted harmonies than its ballad mates – a dirgeful and unsettled, unsettling setting. Finally we have – as its title suggests – a really ebullient piece to close in the shape of Quicksilver.

There are other pleasing things to detain one as well. Fisk has arranged a series of works by American composers for guitar and flute. He chose three MacDowell piano settings. To A Wild Rose is the most obvious choice – and would a delightful concert closer – but Fisk has surrounded it with a jovial Will o’the wisp and the wistful character piece A Deserted Farm. Similarly he has constructed a Stephen Foster triptych in a way reminiscent of the MacDowell, with Beautiful Dreamer standing at the centre and a piccolo outing in If You Only Have A Moustache. It’s interesting that Fisk has gone for Chick Corea’s little song but it makes a pleasing entrant amongst the more august and established things. Schuman’s Orpheus and his Lute is languorous and expressive and the Ives pairing provides a fine contrast. We end though with Beaser and his restful setting of a French carol, Il est né, le divin enfant.

These delightful performances still continue to give pleasure. Don’t overlook them in the welter of Fisk’s more obviously virtuosic contributions elsewhere.

Jonathan Woolf,