Friday, August 24, 2012

Noah Stewart - A Review

          A resounding commercial success in the U.K. when it was released in March 2012, the debut album of Harlem-born tenor Noah Stewart now finds its way to the U.S. in a somewhat altered state. Four tracks ("Campos de Oro," "Nearer My God to Thee," Massenet's "Pourquoi me reveiller" and "StilleNacht") have been dropped, and three new tracks ("I Have a Dream," "This Land Is Mine" and "The Star Spangled Banner") inserted in their place. As the CD runs only forty-two minutes, it is disappointing that the decision was made not to include all of the recorded selections on this issue.
          Released on Universal Music's "Verve" label, Noah is not a true classical album but a crossover release that straddles both popular and classical genres and demonstrates Stewart's ease with a variety of musical styles. He is particularly successful in the light classical-inspired ballads, such as the lilting David Whitfield-Mantovani favorite "Cara Mia," Vincent Youmans's "Without a Song" and Nicholas Brodzsky's ''I'll Walk with God" (originally sung by Mario Lanza on the soundtrack of MGM's The Student Prince). Throughout these selections, Stewart's warm, attractive tone is sensitively employed to croon and caress the lyrical phrases as required, while the high notes are for the most part securely produced. (The high G at the end of "Cara Mia" is an exception.) Even more impressive, however, are stirring renditions of "Deep River" (with choral support from Apollo Voices) and "Shenandoah." These familiar songs find new life in Stewart's heartfelt delivery and the initially restrained orchestral arrangements that swell to more epic, sweeping proportions. "Shenandoah" is particularly breathtaking; in fact, it is one of the finest recorded renditions of this American folk-song staple. A slightly less inspired performance of ''Amazing Grace" is also present, and several popular covers round out the disc - an Italian version of the Moody Blues's "Nights in White Satin" ("Notte di luce"), Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," ABBA's "I Have a Dream" and "This Land Is Mine" (otherwise known as the "Theme from Exodus").
          Stewart is accompanied by three different instrumental ensembles over the course of the program, though the singer's vocal tracks were recorded independently from the orchestral contributions and then combined (sometimes inconsistently) with the accompaniments after the fact. As a result, the final sound mix has a decidedly over-produced "pop" quality to it that is particularly unkind to the two classical selections, Puccini's "Recondita armonia" (from Tosca) and the Bach-Gounod ''Ave Maria." Both works are maligned by the recording orchestra do not remotely inhabit the same acoustic space.  Furthermore, Stewart's voice occasionally takes on a pinched, gritty texture in major climaxes that may be due to technical issues with the recording and mixing though there are times when the singing itself is notably less than optimal. One such moment occurs when the tenor blazes toward the finale of an otherwise strong performance of "The Star Spangled Banner," only to have his interpolated high A tighten unpleasantly.
          But in the end, there is so much "production" happening here that it is difficult to judge Stewart's singing on its own merits. This is a shame, because he clearly possesses a lovely voice and strong musical instincts, in addition to a strikingly handsome face - an all-around "package." As his opera career has begun to take off, one hopes that a future project will afford him the opportunity to document his singing in a more classical-friendly recording environment.

Review by Derek Greten-Harrison
Opera News, September 2012

"NOAH" Philharmonia Orchestra,
Dodd; The Vienna Session Orchestra, Bertl;
The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra,
Hein. No texts or translations.
 Verve 001701202

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