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"Anthem" from CHESS: A Comparison of Four Recordings

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One of the most enduring of all theatre songs written in the 1980's has been “Anthem” from the Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus/Tim Rice musical, Chess. Soviet chess grandmaster Anatoly, having just defected to the United States, expresses his heart’s loyalty to the Russia that existed “long before nations’ lines were drawn.” This is the situation and the message of the song that brings Act I of Chess to such a stirring conclusion. The composers of Chess, Andersson and Ulvaeus, are Swedish (formerly of the pop group ABBA); Rice’s English words give “Anthem” a single awkward moment, the phrase “She [Russia] is the constant/We who don’t care.” Yet the dubious construction fits Anatoly, a non-native English speaker, and the remainder of the lyric is fine. Especially when one listens to “Anthem” minus the solo voice, one can hear a vague resemblance between its melody and that of “The Star Spangled Banner” (the national anthem of the United States of America)–a parallel that would have registered subconsciously with many American listeners, thus encouraging their identification with a Soviet character. The music of “Anthem,” then, is as adept as are its lyrics; the song’s fame is well deserved.

Swedish artist Tommy Korberg was the first singer of “Anthem”; David Carroll (1950-1992) introduced the song on Broadway, and his thrilling rendition on the cast album set a standard for the countless recordings that followed. Of these, three of the best were made by the late opera tenor Jerry Hadley, the star of English musical theatre Michael Ball, and the pop singer Josh Groban. Comparing these four outstanding recordings of “Anthem” can only deepen one's appreciation of the song and the singers. (David Carroll)

One of the most promising Broadway leading men of the 1980's, David Carroll had just the kind of strong, clarion singing voice needed to bring down an Act I curtain effectively and remain in the audience’s memory throughout intermission. Yet there is more to Carroll’s recording than golden tone; his artistry is apparent, first of all, in the grace notes he adds in a couple of phrases (“we who don’t care,” “around my heart”) and, second of all, in the Russian accent he affects. The accent is subtle yet consistent: he is careful to shade his w’s toward a v sound, roll the r’s of both “despair” and “care” (words that end successive phrases), and keep all of his vowels somewhat “closed.” Though his enunciation has the slight, “phonetic” stiffness of one unused to English, he does emphasize the word “man’s” in the phrase “Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart.” “My land’s only borders lie around my heart,” follows this, and the intended meaning is clear: true love of country transcends oppressive regimes and even physical borders. Lastly, Carroll has the vocal capacity to hit a loud, high note (unwritten?) on “where” in the phrase “Where could I start,” thereby setting a precedent followed by Josh Groban (but not by Jerry Hadley) and leaving a strong impression on the listener. (Jerry Hadley)

Recorded in March 1992, Jerry Hadley’s “Anthem” was intended as a tribute to Carroll, who just days or weeks earlier had died tragically (afflicted with AIDS, he expired in the men’s restroom of the recording studio in which he was making the cast album of Grand Hotel). Possibly because it is a tribute, Hadley’s rendition is relatively subdued–almost the polar opposite, in fact, of Carroll's. Hadley’s tempo is slower; he is accompanied not by a rousing, full orchestra but by a piano; he sings several phrases very softly; he inserts no grace notes and does not take the high note on “where”; his focus is not on the tone (which is lovely) so much as on the words, which he seems to savor (notably, though, he does not sing the penultimate phrase, “Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart,” but leaves it to the piano). The result is a simple and direct rendition which does not overshadow Carroll’s yet is beautiful in its own right. While maintaining legato flow Hadley respects the shape of each phrase; he subtly colors “wars, death, and despair” to suggest misery and lets his voice swell to emphasize the final word of the song, “heart.” “My land’s only borders lie around my heart,” he sings -- and again the intended meaning is clear; and in fact “heartfelt” is a good word for Hadley’s “Anthem” as a whole. In the history of “Anthem” recordings it is–somewhat ironically, considering Hadley’s operatic status–uniquely intimate. (Josh Groban)

Of course, as an opera singer Hadley surpassed most Broadway or pop singers in dynamic range and control. And yet one of the best and best loved of current male pop stars, Josh Groban, has the vocal gifts and the musicality to do justice to “Anthem.” The Groban recording under discussion here was made in 2015 as part of his successful Broadway album, Stages. (Groban first sang “Anthem” in 2008's Chess in Concert; he was good but, at age twenty-seven, probably too young to do full justice to the song, particularly in such a setting as London’s Royal Albert Hall.) Groban’s tonal allure is the distinguishing feature of his “Anthem.” His rendition has much less character in it than Carroll’s does (the only accent Groban uses is his own) and is considerably less intimate than Hadley’s. If one word stands out with Groban it is “despair,” which he wraps in expressive vibrato; his hushed “but how” is memorable, too. On the whole, however, Groban’s is a version more notable for magical tone and musical phrasing than for specificity or identification with a character. Groban, of course–though he has acted and will star on Broadway soon (in a curiously titled musical based on Tolstoy's War and Peace)–is a singer, a musician, first and foremost, and his “Anthem” will more than please any lover of great pop singing. It is worth noting also that the orchestration backing Groban is the most exciting one imaginable. As one listens to that voice soaring so thrillingly over orchestra and chorus in the song’s final section, one knows both that the Groban recording will be the “reference” “Anthem” for the younger generation and that it deserves to be counted among the finest of all recordings of "Anthem." (Michael Ball)

Recorded in 2000 as part of his highly acclaimed CD The Musicals, Michael Ball’s “Anthem” is here dealt with last because it incorporates some of the best qualities of the renditions already discussed. Its one fault is that it often sounds more “romantic” than “patriotic”; Ball’s coloratura-like flourish on the word “around,” though delightful, sounds almost like something in a Neopolitan song. But like Hadley’s this is–at least in its first section–an intimate “Anthem,” Ball being an artist who can sing very quietly while retaining tonal quality. Like Carroll, Ball creates a character: this Anatoly sounds discouraged at first but takes heart in the song’s words, in the fact that “no man, no madness/Though their sad power may prevail/Can possess, conquer my country’s heart/They rise to fail.” In Ball’s soft-timbered baritone is a disarming power that allows him to ring out suddenly on “I cross over borders/But I’m still there now,” making of it a key phrase. He maintains this “ring” to the end, soaring, like Groban, over chorus and orchestra. The final impression is of a rendition all the more powerful for having begun so quietly.

Chess has been before the public since 1984 when its “original concept album,” with Tommy Korberg as Anatoly (then called “The Russian”), was released. Since then there has been a more or less steady stream of “cover versions,” by worthy singers, of its stirring and (now) iconic Act I finale. Of these versions Ball’s, Carroll’s, and Groban’s are justly famous, while Hadley’s deserves much wider recognition (even many opera lovers seem unaware of it). The recordings of “Anthem” made by these four men represent the best of Broadway and “crossover” singing and demonstrate what an appealing and durable song Andersson, Ulvaeus, and Rice created.

Updated Jan-14-2018 at 06:40 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Recorded Music