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American Choral Works

Chichester Psalms (1965) [17:54]
William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Carols of Death (1958) [9:22]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
In the Beginning (1947) [16:49]
Libby LARSEN (b.1950)
How it thrills us (1990) [4:24]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Psalm 90 (1890, revised 1924) [10:26]
Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury (director) [Michael Pearce (treble), Peter Winn (alto), John Bowley (tenor), Daniel Sladden (bass), Peter Barley (organ); Rachel Masters (harp); David Corkhill (percussion) (Bernstein)] [Ameral Gunsen (mezzo) (Copland)] [Leo Hussain (treble), Simon Williams (tenor), Peter Barley (organ), David Corkhill, Michael Skinner, Stephen Whittaker, Nigel Bates (percussion) (Ives)]
rec. 23-27 July 1990, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
Texts and Translations included
EMI CLASSICS 54188 [59:58]

An All-American programme sung by an archetypically English choir; the juxtaposition makes for interesting results and it is good to see the programme reissued by Arkiv, complete with original notes and texts, though a few reservations prevent one giving it completely unqualified praise.
Ives’s Psalm settings, ten of them in all, were all of them initially composed (even if later revised) in the fifteen or so years 1887 and 1902, i.e. in the years during which Ives was boy organist in Dansbury, Connecticut, and organist at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York City. They are works of startling originality, works which still sound astonishingly fresh. The setting of Psalm 67 has perhaps attracted most attention, but this setting of Psalm 90 is pretty remarkable too. Ives himself thought quite highly of it and he was surely right to do so. It is structured around a series of organ chords, and an all-pervading pedal C on the organ, and Ives’s characteristic bi-tonality serves well to articulate the text’s prayerful movement through lamentation to a recognition of God’s greatness. Here Ives’s remarkable setting gets a decent performance, best at the radiant conclusion; elsewhere it is rather on the cool side and is not helped by a recorded sound which seems rather light at the bottom end.
Copland’s In the Beginning was commissioned for performance at a 1947 symposium on Music Criticism, at Harvard, and was premiered (alongside a premiere of Hindemith’s Apparebit repentina dies) by a choir directed by Robert Shaw in May of that year. A significant piece of a capella writing for mezzo soloist and choir, it is built around alternating roles for soloist and choir in a setting of the opening verses of Genesis (in the Authorised Version). There is much fine choral work here, and the boy’s voices are a joy; but I remain, after several listenings, somewhat uneasy about the contribution of Ameral Gunson as soloist. She sings perfectly well, but her voice is so thoroughly operatic in quality and manner that it sets up a slightly distracting contrast with the very different sound of the choir. In the early parts of the work, when the soloist largely relates the declarations of God (“And God said …”) and the choir largely recounts the subsequent actions, the contrast perhaps serves a purpose; but later, as the roles of soloist and choir become less obviously separate, the contrast leads to some moments of discomfort.
Schuman’s Carols of Death is made up of settings of three Whitman poems (‘The Last Invocation’, ‘The Unknown Region’ and ‘To All, To Each’). Whitman, for all his abundant love of life, was also a poet who often seemed “half in love with easeful death” (to quote Keats) and his work contains many meditations on, and addresses to, “lovely and soothing death” (this time the words are Whitman’s). It is three of these which Schuman sets, beautifully and inventively, with a rich range of vocal colours and effects, but not so rich as ever to attract attention merely to themselves rather than to the meaning of the texts. The choir is heard at its very best here, whether in the hushed, eerie quasi-whispering that opens ‘The Last Invocation’, taken very slowly and sung with wonderful control, or in the expressive fragmentations of ‘The Unknown Region’.
The Chichester Psalms are heard in Bernstein’s own reduced scoring for organ, harp and percussion. It is good to hear this somewhat more intimate version of the work, but this isn’t an altogether successful reading of the work. The rhythms are not as incisive or marked as they might be; it is perhaps here in Bernstein’s composition that the ‘Englishness’ of the performers is most striking and least satisfying. There isn’t the bite or drive that the best performances of this piece have; everything seems just a little tight-lipped. There are, of course, good things, not least the work of Michael Pearce, quite lovely and touching; the third Psalm (its text actually combining words from Psalms 131 and 133) comes off pretty well, though even here the balance between ‘church’ and ‘theatre’ in Bernstein’s music is perhaps settled a little too comprehensively in favour of the church.
Libby Larsen’s How it thrills us was commissioned by King’s in 1990. Such music of Larsen’s as I have heard (not a lot, I confess) had left me with the impression of a particular sensitivity in the setting of text. That impression is very much confirmed by the chance to rehear this setting of an English version of a sonnet by Rilke (though not identified as such it is ‘Wie ergreift uns der Vogelschrei …’, no. 26 in the second part of Sonnets to Orpheus). Larsen’s setting is a vivacious piece of work, voices interweaving to intriguingly expressive effect and is given an assured and committed performance. Rilke’s unconventional spirituality somehow sits very well in the aesthetic represented by the choir and chapel of King’s.
Glyn Pursglove


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