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Michael HORVIT (b. 1932)
The Mystic Flame - A Choral Symphony (2000)
Twyla Whittaker (sop)
Katherine Ciesinski (mezzo)
Joseph Evans (ten)
Richard Paul Fink (bass-bar)
Moores School Symphony Orchestra and Festival Chorus/Franz Anton Krager
rec. 3-5 March 2001, Moores Opera House, University of Houston, USA. DDD
ALBANY TROY533 [67:44]

Horvit was a pupil of Gardner Read, Quincy Porter, Lukas Foss, Piston and Copland. It is therefore no surprise that this choral symphony or oratorio is both tonal and welcoming. It variously reminded me of Michael Tippett in A Child Of Our Time and of Vaughan Williams in Dona Nobis Pacem. Horvit several times resorts to the sort of affecting march we hear in RVW’s Dirge for Two Veterans (Oh What Is the Use of War? tr. 9); indeed it recurs and serves as an emotional cohesive. Into the mix there also come smokily hassidic meditations as well as college sophomoric grandeur of the type encountered in Hanson’s Drum Taps and Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom. Listen also to the women’s vocalisation at the end of tr. 10: Hanson’s Lament for Beowulf is not far distant. At the end (tr. 19) one cannot help thinking of the patriotic works of Copland (Lincoln Portrait), Bloch (America) and Braga Santos (Fourth Symphony) in imposing oratory ... and sometimes banality.

The inspiration of The Mystic Flame is the story of the sufferings of the Jewish people and their struggle to be free from persecution and bigotry. The composer writes that the work’s message is intended to speak also of the experience of all oppressed peoples who came to the USA in search of freedom. The symphony is in nineteen sections deployed across three parts: The Golden Door; The Tired Sunset Glow; The Morning Light. The sections play for between 1:36 and 6:13; most time out at less than five minutes.

The standard of playing and choral singing from Horvit’s own college forces is extremely good. I suspect there have been many long hours of coaching and rehearsal. For evidence listen to the Waltonian peck-and-hammer ensemble precision of Her Beacon Hand (tr. 7) and The Road to Destruction (tr. 10). Not everything in the garden is glorious. The mezzo has a distinct and unpleasant beat in her voice which in some way I cannot quite pin down is more displeasing than the tenor’s similar affliction in the needily intense and operatic Kaddish (tr. 13). The soprano is not completely immune either although she sings touchingly in To Die Young (tr. 11) and Outpost of Democracy (tr. 16).

Horvit has other CDs on Albany: Music of Michael Horvit TROY134, Daughters of Jerusalem TROY265, Even When God is Silent TROY352 and two more are due (organ music and chamber music).

The sung words are printed in full in the booklet and the disc is tracked generously. The insert also includes decent biographies of the composer, singers and conductor.

The Mystic Flame aspires to the heights and does so within a language well established by others. It is a skilful, evidently sincere and sometimes moving epic. While not essential listening it will still be appreciated by those who already love their choral Hanson, Thompson, RVW and Tippett.

Rob Barnett

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