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
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.
Naxos American Classics page