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American Choral Music
Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987) Flower Songs, Op. 157 (1983) [19:25]
Charles IVES (1874-1954) Psalm 90 (1923-24) [11:06]
John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938) Fern Hill* (1960) [15:33]
Lukas FOSS (b. 1922) Behold, I build an House  (1950) [10:05]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) In the Beginning* (1947) [16:02]
Suzanne Mentzer (mezzo)*
The University of Texas Chamber Singers and Chamber Orchestra/James Morrow
rec. 21-22 January 2006, Bates Recital Hall, School of Music, University of Texas, Austin. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559299 [72:11]

 


I have one complaint – and one only – about this disc: the absence of texts. I presume this is due to issues of copyright/expense. That may be understandable but it’s a great shame since it seems to me that an important element in judging any vocal music is the way in which the composer has responded to the words that are being set.

The songs by the Philadelphian composer, Vincent Persichetti offer a case in point. These are settings of seven poems by e.e.Cummings. Now Cummings is a poet whose work can be hard to assimilate at the best of times but without the words in front of me I really find it hard to assess how successful these are. But given that limitation I’d say that the settings, for mixed choir and string orchestra, are attractive and accessible. The useful notes tell us that Persichetti “carefully arranged the texts into a loosely-constructed cycle on the theme of love and loss.” There are some lovely choral textures to savour – Persichetti seems to write very well for voices – and the string accompaniment is just right. I enjoyed these songs, which I’d not previously heard, very much and the performance seems to be very good indeed.

Another work that I’d not encountered before is John Corigliano’s Fern Hill. This is an early work, written just after his graduation, and in it he sets a poem by Dylan Thomas for mezzo-soprano, chorus and chamber orchestra. In the booklet the composer is quoted as saying that he was “aiming in the music to match the forthright lyricism of the text.” Well, though I haven’t had access to the text my sense is that he definitely succeeded. This is an enormously attractive, accessible score in which voices and instruments blend superbly – the writing for woodwind is especially effective. Corigliano also states “The direction “with simplicity” is often to be found in the printed score.” That’s a quality that’s evident, for example, in the lovely flowing opening. The mezzo solo comes in the middle of the piece and it’s beautifully delivered by Suzanne Mentzer. She has a rich and expressive voice and it’s well suited to this easeful, lyrical music. This work seems to breathe the open air. If listeners are looking for a signpost I’d suggest that anyone who likes Barber’s wonderfully evocative Knoxville will respond equally positively to this piece. This is an engaging, delightfully lyrical work and I enjoyed it from first bar to last and count it as a real discovery.

Behold, I build an House by Lukas Foss is a very different sort of piece. Commissioned for the opening service of the ecumenical chapel at Boston University, it sets words from the Second Book of Chronicles in which the building of Solomon’s temple is described. This was another work that I’d not previously encountered and it impressed me. The important organ part is most imaginatively played by Seung Won Cho and the choir sings splendidly. I admired especially their dynamic control in the meditative, prayerful closing pages.

I’ve come across the other pieces before. The highly individual psalm setting by Charles Ives features typically quirky and inventive harmonies. The accompaniment by organ and occasional bells is most interesting. I have to say that it’s a piece that intrigues me rather more than it moves me. The choral writing is far from easy but the Texas choir seem completely at ease with its complexities and the short soprano and tenor solos are well taken by choir members. As in the Foss piece, the quiet singing is especially noteworthy and the hushed, consonant close of the piece is very well handled.

Finally we hear Copland’s masterly In the Beginning. There’s an interesting link here in that the first performance of this work was conducted, in 1947, by the doyen of American choral conductors, Robert Shaw. The conductor of this disc, James Morrow, sang with Shaw and his Robert Shaw Festival Singers and as a baritone soloist on some of Shaw’s recordings. I’ve had occasion to review a couple of performances of this piece in recent months. Both of them were by English church choirs, which included boy trebles. Though those performances were good the exemplary account on this present CD shows that this work really needs a mixed adult choir if it’s to make its full effect. The performance benefits hugely from the impressive contribution of Suzanne Mentzer. Hers is probably the richest solo voice I’ve yet heard in this work but the richness does not hamper clarity – you can hear every word. I’m sure her operatic experience helps. The choral contribution is pretty impressive too. The jazzy writing with which Copland depicts the creation of light on the fourth day is very well done. Equally successful is the passage about the creation of man on the sixth day, which is as exciting and ecstatic as Copland can have wished for. Copland told a student choir in 1980: “Creation was quite a stunt, so make it grand.” That’s certainly achieved here, not least at the very end where the singing of the words “and man became a living soul” is indeed grand. This is as fine a performance of this work as I’ve heard.

The fine Copland performance concludes an excellent disc. The choir is consistently splendid. It’s evident that James Morrow has trained them very well indeed. Balance, tuning and intonation are all exemplary and, as far as I could judge without access to scores, their rhythmic security is also spot-on. Though the singers are, presumably, fairly young and have a nice fresh tone there’s also a fullness and depth to the tone that you don’t always get with student choirs. The recorded sound is excellent and the liner notes are very useful.

The absence of texts is a pity but it doesn’t dim my enthusiasm for this very stimulating collection of fine performances of mainly unfamiliar repertoire. 

John Quinn

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