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Abraham Lincoln Portraits
CD 1
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Lincoln, the Great Commoner
(c. 1921) [3:39]
Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987)
A Lincoln Address
(1973) [13:22]
Roy Harris (1898-1979)
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
(1953) [14:10]
Ernst Bacon (1898-1990)
Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865
(1940) [29:43]
CD 2
Morton Gould (1913-1996)
Lincoln Legend
(1941) [16:36]
George Frederick McKay (1899-1970)
To a Liberator
(A Lincoln Tribute) (1939) [11:18]
Paul Turok (b.1929)
Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty
(1963) [9:18]
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Lincoln Portrait
(1942) [14:31]
Barry Scott (narrator: Persichetti and Copland); Sharon Mabry (mezzo: Harris);
Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (violin: Harris); Anthony LaMarchina (cello: Harris);
Roger Wiesmeyer (piano: Harris); Nashville Symphony Chorus/George Mabry;
Nashville Symphony/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Laura Turner hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville 1 July 2007 (Gould, Turok, Copland), 6 July 2008 (Ives, Persichetti, Bacon, McKay), 27 September 2008 (Harris). Text by Jane Vial Jaffe. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559373-74 [60:54 + 51:43]
Experience Classicsonline

This set is a tribute, in his bicentennial year, to America’s sixteenth president. The works have been chosen by Leonard Slatkin and Naxos and, varied as it is, the set contains only a small fraction of the musical compositions written about the Great Emancipator. As the program notes point out, the eight works here describe Lincoln the man, his life, his times and perhaps most important, the feelings evoked by Lincoln in the composers and so many others. Since the works in the set were written over most of the first three-quarters of the 20th century, looking at them in chronological context can perhaps tell us most about how Lincoln has appeared to his fellow Americans, both musically and historically.
 
Ives’ Lincoln, the Great Commoner was originally written as a song, either right before or right after World War I. The choral version is mostly a unison work and quotes fewer folk tunes than we might expect from Ives, but when it develops into dense tone clusters, accompanied by some of the composer’s best orchestration, it becomes an extremely impressive picture of Lincoln’s idealism. The progression to the finale is inexorable and it would not be too much to say that this is the composer’s premier contribution to the choral repertoire, short as it is.
 
More than forty years later we have a work of Paul Turok, a well-known critic and broadcaster in New York City. He is also known as a composer and has long been interested in American history. His variations area based on a folk tune that was used in Lincoln’s campaign for President in 1860. It is a very simple tune and can be played solely on the white notes of the piano. I found Turok’s piece very enjoyable and an able handling of variation form, though not especially Lincolnesque. Written yet another ten years later and very different in intensity is Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, which sets the speech Lincoln gave at his Second Inauguration. This is one of the most moving works in the set-the music accompanying the words “…and the war came…” and “…both read the same Bible…” plumbing great depths of feeling. After a central interlude there is a very spare accompaniment to “…with malice towards none…” and a subdued statement of the opening material before the narrator reiterates the word “Peace”. A wonderful work that should be better known.
 
Four of the eight works in this set date from the years 1939-1942 when the approach of World War II and its coming to America generated many statements of the nation’s values in this terrible time. McKay’s To a Liberator was written in the light of the events of the late thirties and is a compendium of the feelings evoked in the composer by Lincoln. The first section is actually entitled Evocation, and like the beginning of Copland’s work, portrays the Lincoln of destiny, albeit in a more personal manner. A wordless chorus is added for the second section which deals with the common man’s faith in democracy. This is an excellent variation of the opening material, making it almost sound like folk or gospel music. The third section, a March, and the fourth, titled Declaration, continue the musical and philosophical threads of what has come before. The Epilogue returns to the opening material, but very quietly and in a ruminative vein, not at all what one would expect. I think it safe to say that this is the most substantial of McKay’s works to appear since Naxos started recording them.
 
Throughout his career Morton Gould moved back and forth between serious works and more populist ones, almost like an American Arthur Benjamin. Lincoln Legend definitely lives up to the seriousness of the times (1941). Gould takes a different approach towards his subject than McKay, fashioning various patriotic and folk material associated with the Civil War into a symphonic poem that while portraying that past conflict ends with questioning emotions about the conflict to come. Gould’s always piquant orchestration and sense of construction use the well-known material to produce a wide range of emotions - a work that is truly more than the sum of the parts.
 
Yet another approach is taken by Ernst Bacon in Ford’s Theatre: a Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865. This work was originally incidental music to a play about Lincoln by Paul Horgan, which Bacon later orchestrated. In its twelve numbers it covers a very wide range of emotions, from pathos to cynicism to the final tragedy. It has always been one of Bacon’s best-known works and is very welcome here as its last incarnation was a Desto LP from about fifty years ago that was unlistenable even then. It is a wonderful introduction to an unjustly neglected composer. Last of the four 1939-1942 pieces is Copland’s ubiquitous Lincoln Portrait, a work so well-known as to need no description.
 
The Roy Harris work in this set falls into a separate category from the others for a variety of reasons. It requires a piano trio accompaniment as opposed an orchestral one and a vocal soloist rather than a chorus. It was not written to strengthen the nation’s resolve or meditate on the greatness of Lincoln as were many of the others. Rather it is an angry work, asking what Lincoln would have thought of the continuance of war and prejudice almost a century after he had died to end such things. What is more, it cannot be looked at in comparison to the other works in the set as it can in the context of all the pieces the composer wrote throughout his career dealing with Lincoln. In style it is an eerie work, with the ghost of the President walking back and forth pondering the continuance of evil in the world. Harris’s use of open chords and a recurring descending passage for the soloist add both the atmosphere and the musical momentum. Especially impressive is the setting of the last paragraph the poem which increases the sense of lamentation.
 
Aside from the fine quality of the music, the most notable feature of this set is the fine quality of the sound in the new Laura Turner Hall, the new home of the Nashville Symphony. The hall has a wonderful acoustic and the Naxos engineers make the most of it. The orchestra itself mostly lives up to their new surroundings, although there is some cluttered playing in the Persichetti and the Gould. The chorus does well with the difficult Ives piece. As for the instrumental soloists in the Harris work they definitely understand Harris, although one could ask for a little more verve in their playing. The mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry is excellent at getting to the drama of text and music, especially in her wordless singing in the first three minutes of the Harris work. My one complaint is with the narrator Barry Scott, who appears in the Persichetti and Copland works. In the former he is totally convincing, without a shred of false emotion. But in the Lincoln Portrait he does what so many others have done: he acts. Copland himself cautioned “against undue emphasis in the delivery of Lincoln’s words …they no added ‘emotion’…” As for Leonard Slatkin he not only delivers forceful leadership of each work, but shows himself capable of treating each one completely on its own terms.
 
Since only the Copland and Ives works are presently available on CD, this set is a must for collectors of American music, aside from patriotic associations. The Harris and the Persichetti works alone make it an essential purchase.
 
William Kreindler
 
see also reviews by Rob Barnett and John Sheppard

Naxos American Classics page

 


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