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April 18, 1993|WALTER PRICE

"American Dreamer." Thomas Hampson, baritone; Jay Ungar, violin; Molly Mason, guitar; David Alpher, piano. Angel CDC 54621.

"Dark Eyes." Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; Ossipov Russian Folk Orchestra conducted by Nikolai Kalinin. Philips 434 080-2.

Songs. John Charles Thomas, baritone; various orchestras, conductors and pianists. Nimbus NI 78338.

Two stellar contemporary baritones and one giant of two generations ago are featured in these releases of light music. By far the most rewarding is the disc of Foster songs, presented with singular taste and imagination by Hampson. With no hint of condescension, he lavishes as much care on musical and textual matters here as he does elsewhere on Mahler or Schubert.

In addition to such familiar songs as "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Hard Times Come Again No More," there are rarities such as "Molly! Do You Love Me?" The beautifully equalized tone throughout is a source of constant pleasure.

Hvorostovsky's lyric voice is heard to good advantage also, with some finely controlled mezza voce and piano singing. However, the arrangements he uses tend toward overblown kitsch. Balalaikas and tamborines get quite a workout, especially in "Dark Eyes." He is far more convincing in two unaccompanied songs, "Farewell, Happiness" and "Oh, Sweet Night," where the simple beauty of his sound takes over.

Thomas was one of the most popular singers of his time. He was never very comfortable with the trappings of opera, preferring to delight his public with mostly American songs in concerts and radio. His wide-ranging, multicolored instrument was glorious, and he used it with mostly effortless abandon.

In those days white singers often sang Negro spirituals in appalling dialect. They are embarrassing to hear now. Still, Thomas had dramatic flair, evidenced in "Ol' Man River" and an especially riveting "Lord Randall." To make a point, he was not above whistling, laughing, imitating a carriage driver or speaking. It all sounds shamelessly old-fashioned now, even naive.

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