It takes a certain something extra to set about the audacious task of writing music for all 55 of William Blake's immortal poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Let's call it moxie, or chutzpah. What the heck. Let's call it balls.
Contemporary composer William Bolcom must have cojones of steel. Not only does he set everything from "The Sick Rose" to "Tyger, Tyger," but he forgoes the usual intimacy of the piano-and-vocalist duo in favor of almost 450 performers: several choruses, including a children's choir; a dozen vocal soloists; a speaker; a harmonica player; a fiddler; and a huge symphony orchestra augmented by electronic instruments and extra brass and percussion. Moreover, one musical style isn't enough to capture all the moods and poetic genres Bolcom is attempting to connect. His music varies from solemn chorales to lush romanticism, from dissonant modernism to jazz, folk, country and rock.
The impression one has after listening to these three discs is pure jaw-dropping amazement. The performance, conducted by Leonard Slatkin and including the composer's wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, is the kind one prays for but seldom realizes. This is a feast for every bone and muscle fiber in you that adores music -- music of any kind.
Bolcom doesn't treat his source material as sacrosanct, either. He isn't afraid to comment on the poems in the way he sets them. For example, "The Lamb," a young child's existential musing about who created the world, is written as an almost unaccompanied atonal terror. This surely goes against Blake's intentions even as it addresses how modern audiences might feel distance from Blake's innocent point of view. However, Bolcom beautifully points up the element of race in "The Little Black Boy" by setting it to a bluesy beat and deep baritone voice.
Composed 23 years ago, this new live recording marks the work's first appearance on disc, and what an entrance! Not only is the work obviously the most important vocal cycle written since the death of Benjamin Britten, it's surely Bolcom's masterpiece. Whether enjoyed piecemeal, or as one long, transcendent listening experience, these discs deliver. And at Naxos' rock bottom prices (not much more than taking a family of four to McDonald's), how can you resist?