From time to time over the years I have heard songs by Ricky Ian Gordon in the context of various recital discs of American music or from the stage during vocal recitals, and always found them to be worth hearing. His music has a gentle, even wistful, quality at times, grasping the mood of a lyric and stretching it out over flowing piano accompaniments. A while back I became aware of a recording by one of my favorite young singers, Jesse Blumberg, of an entire song cycle by Gordon, called Green Sneakers, accompanied by string quartet, and I blogged it here after hearing it. I also was pleased to attend a program produced by Blumberg's 5 Boroughs Music Festival at which Gordon provided piano collaboration in a variety of music including his songs with an excellent group of singers.
Then I came across the first of two CD's devoted entirely to Gordon singing his own songs to his own piano accompaniment in the Blue Griffin label. "A Horse With Wings", released in 2010, features a collection of 16 of the composer's songs. Here's where I stumbled a bit. Listening first over an automobile sound system during a trip last fall, I found that the album palled on me after a bit. There was a sameness of tempi, style, and dynamic that made it wearying to listen through the entire album. When I listened again on headphones, I felt that the voice — which is not a conventionally beautiful trained professional voice — was not ingratiating heard over long stretches, due to overly close microphone placement, insufficient warmth and vibrato, and an inability to sustain long notes without losing the pitch at times.
I received an offer from New Arts Guild (his management?) to send me press copies of the recital CDs, which I accepted, and subsequently received another copy of the first together with the new 2011 recital disc, titled "Bric-A-Brac," which struck me as very much "more of the same." That is, close miking of the voice with the piano a bit too much in the background, lack of variety in tempi, etc.
So, here's my take on Ricky Ian Gordon: He is a fantastic song-writer. I love his songs, and I've enjoyed them when they show up singly or in small groups in mixed recitals. But there is a sameness of style and tempo and temperament to them that makes them less compelling when heard in large batches. Furthermore, in my experience, while Mr. Gordon is a fine pianist and a fairly good singer, he is not the most effective performer of his songs. I know there is a special feeling about composers performing their own work, but I don't think composers are always the best performers of their own work. Stravinsky's recordings as pianist and conductor are uneven, Copland started as a rather awkward conductor but got better over time. Reynaldo Hahn made recordings of his own songs playing the double-role of singer and pianist, and they are OK, but I think the recordings in which he accompanies better singers are better performances, and the best Hahn I've heard were performances that didn't involve him at all.
The two Blue Griffin discs are important contributions as reference recordings preserving the composer's interpretations, but I prefer to take my Gordon in smaller doses by collaborative performers who can concentrate on their respective contributions – vocal and piano – with the synergy that produces, preferably in a better sonic frame. (These are studio recordings, with the pluses and minuses that entails. Nothing is more difficult to record convincingly than a piano in a studio, and when you add the tricky problem of balancing voices, the chances of going wrong are multiplied.)
Just to drive home the point, I recently read an admiring review of a song recital by Scot Weir titled "What Shall We Remember: American Songs", produced by Radio Bremen (Germany) on the German Dreyer-Gaido label. I imported a copy from an English on-line retailer. The album includes 11 songs by Gordon, two of which can also be found on the recent Gordon discs. Weir is more effective in both of them, and in all the songs in his selection, with a more beautiful voice used more imaginatively, more variety of tempi, a much warmer and imaginative piano accompaniment from Jan Czajkowski, the whole beautifully engineered with enough space around the voice. This is a radio studio recording, but the balances and tone quality are highly successful. For somebody seeking a large selection of Gordon songs, I would highly recommend this disc, although it can't be obtained from US retailers.
And I hope to hear more of Gordon's work in the future. My recommendation to Blue Griffin, if they want to continue this series, is to hire Blumberg or some other professional singers (Audra McDonald did some excellent recordings of this repertory), keep Gordon at the piano although his participation as a singer would be terrific in a mixed recital disc where he's not the only singer, and experiment some more with the acoustic in their studio to produce a warmer recording.