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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


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Abraham Lincoln Portraits
CD1
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Lincoln, the Great Commoner
(1919-22) [3:39]
Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987)
A Lincoln Address
(1973) [13:22]
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
for mezzo and piano trio (1953) [14:10]
Ernst BACON (1898-1990)
Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865
(1946) [29:43]
CD2
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Lincoln Legend
(1941) [16:36]
George Frederick MCKAY (1899-1970)
To a Liberator
(A Lincoln Tribute) (1939-40)† [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, Copland); Sharon Mabry (mezzo, Harris); Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (violin, Harris); Anthony LaMarchina (cello, Harris); Roger Wiesmeyer (piano, Harris);
Nashville Symphony Chorus/George Mabry (Ives)
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee, 1 July 2007 (Gould, Copland); 6 July, 2008 (Ives, Persichetti, Bacon, McKay, Turok), 27 September 2008 (Harris)
NAXOS 8.559373-74 [60:54 + 51:43]
Experience Classicsonline


The extensive and helpful notes to these discs by Jane Vial Jaffe explain that their contents were selected from about ninety works written in honour of Abraham Lincoln. This is a formidable total showing the crucial and continuing importance of Lincoln as an inspirational statesman for Americans and American composers. The eight pieces eventually selected are varied in character and by no means give the impression of being written more from a sense of duty than from real admiration.
 
The shortest work here is also the earliest, and probably the best. Ives’ “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” is a choral setting of a poem by Edwin Markham, not printed in the booklet, presumably for reasons of copyright. Like many of Ives’ other vocal works, it exists also as a song, but the sheer physical impact of the choral version is much greater. The choral part varies between passages in unison and others in complex counterpoint. The orchestral part is of great intricacy virtually throughout its brief duration. The performance here carries considerable conviction, a prerequisite for this piece. Although I have been unable to compare it with a score the impression of both fecundity of ideas and of struggle with them is wholly characteristic of Ives. I have returned to this piece several times, and for me at least the set would be worth having for it alone.
 
The other clear masterpiece here is Copland’s well known “Lincoln Portrait”. However although the performance starts well, with the orchestra playing idiomatically and exactly in the lengthy purely orchestral opening, Barry Scott proves an unsatisfactory speaker. Like so many who have performed this work he seems to lack confidence in the simple eloquence of the words and feels a need to add extra emphasis. I read from the notes that he has appeared as a motivational speaker and in commercials for such companies as Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds. It could be therefore that he is used to trying to make much of little content, rather than, as he should in this work, being able simply to let the power of the words speak for themselves. Often he ignores natural speech rhythms and emphases, making it difficult to follow what is being said. Copland clearly does expect a measured and oratorical style, but it should surely be based on conveying the meaning of the text much more than is the case here. This aspect is a disappointment, but the orchestral performance and recording are still good enough for the performance as a whole to be recommended as part of the collection.
 
The other works which appealed especially to me were Roy Harris’s “Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight” and Ernst Bacon’s “Ford’s Theatre”. The former is a haunting setting for mezzo-soprano and piano trio of a poem by Vachel Lindsay, and the latter a varied and enjoyable Suite drawn from incidental music to the play “Death, Mr President” by Paul Horgan. Of the remainder, Persichetti’s “A Lincoln Address” was written for President Nixon’s 1973 inauguration but the intended first performance was cancelled as it was felt that parts of the text, drawn from Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, might be taken as paralleling the Vietnam war. Unsurprisingly this gave the work considerable notoriety so that other orchestras competed to play it. Even if it lacks the nobility and drive of Copland’s work it is worth hearing once, although I suspect that I will not return to it often. Barry Scott’s narration is more convincing here and overall this is a convincing performance.
 
The remaining pieces, by Morton Gould, G.F. McKay and Paul Turok, are of significantly lesser musical interest, although they do help to fill out knowledge of these composers. Overall this is an interesting and imaginatively presented collection, well played and well recorded. It can be safely recommended to anyone with an interest in American music, or a justifiable admiration for the figure who inspired all of these pieces.
 
John Sheppard
 
And a further perspective from Rob Barnett ...
 
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was sixteenth President of the United States. His life and achievements have inspired many works of literature, art and music – perhaps more than any other national leader – at least in the twentieth century. This year (2009) sees his bicentennial.

American composers have been drawn to writing eulogies of their presidents. It's not something you find elsewhere except in the one-time USSR in relation to Stalin, Lenin and others – an interesting comparison. Kennedy and Eisenhower were each the subject of pieces of music; Kennedy in some quantity. Roy Harris wrote several pieces to celebrate the life, times and beliefs of Lincoln including the work here and the Tenth Symphony premiered by the Los Angeles Brass Society in 1965. He also marked the death of Kennedy with his Epilogue – Profiles in Courage: JFK.
 
The present collection cuts a swathe through a small proportion of America's musical Lincolniana.
 
Ives’ Lincoln the Great Commoner in a grand hooley of a piece – a real choral phantasmagoria. Choir and orchestra heave with eruptive energy. The shrapnel of hymns and songs of the common man are scattered around the battlefield. This music is cut from the same gunny and silk as the wild Fourth Symphony.
 
Barry Scott is the orator in the Copland and Persichetti works. In each his style is modest - no calling down of Olivier's ‘fires of heaven’. The Persichetti is sombre and noble without Copland's italicised rhetoric. It is at times suggestive of brutality and regret. The work is dedicated to Ormandy and the Philadelphia who were to premiere it with Charlton Heston as orator in 1973. However this did not proceed when Vietnam war sensitivities led to requests for cuts and adjustments to the text. In fact the premiere went to Walter Susskind and the St Louis Symphony who gave it in full with William Warfield speaking the text.
 
With the Roy Harris piece we leave the orchestra and move to a chamber ensemble and singer. This is a work of gentle inclines. The sigh and rise of the string writing parallels that of the Third and Seventh symphonies. It can be a little difficult to hear the words which pass with a confident slow swing and a sing-song manner. The vocal line sometimes deploys melisma. On one occasion the piano part is protestingly angular and rhetorical.
 
We hear little about the composer Ernest Bacon yet he had his Enchanted Island recorded by CRI in LP days (LOU 545-11). His Ford’s Theatre is an approachable piece made up of many short vignettes. They are variously: sampler-sentimental, imposing, Whitman-like (the dying soldier), bustlingly confident in the manner of Herrmann’s The Magnificent Ambersons, revelling in pomp and circumstance in the Johnny comes marching home again movement and articulating a mounting agony and tension. It is very approachable in its raindrop evocative moments. Bacon is worth further exploration.
 
The Gould is longer-winded and alternates Harris sincerity with cheap-jack tawdry. Jaunty-gawky riverboat glitter jostles with eerie fanfares. The piece was inspired by reading Carl Sandburg's ‘Abe Lincoln - The Prairie Years, The War Years’.
 
McKay is a composer last represented by a CD of his Epoch Symphony – also on Naxos. His Tribute to a Liberator is music threaded through with optimism and bloom. The music allocated to the chorus is ethereal and smacks of Herbert Howell. The epilogue is very much in the manner of a fading Delian sigh. This five movement piece is said to have been the composer’s celebration of democracy and protest against the European dictators of the 1930s. It was premiered on 15 March 1940 by Fabien Sevitzky and the Indianapolis Symphony.
 
The Paul Turok work dates from the early 1960s and was premiered in by the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra. It is a lighter piece – ingenuous and very much to the point perhaps a little in the manner of the Moeran Sinfonietta.
 
The Copland contribution is the daddy of them all. It is the most successful presidential portrait in music. It proclaims heightened grandeur and declares that great things are afoot. The premiere was given some six months after Pearl Harbor on 16 May 1942 with William Adams as orator. A well-turned performance is given; not at all 'luvvy'. The orchestral contribution is vivid and is certainly not short on nobility.
 
This is a stimulating anthology. I hope that we will hear more Lincoln-inspired music in future collections including the eccentric Harris Tenth Symphony.
 
Rob Barnett

Comments received

Dear Mr. Mullenger,

Having read the review material in your recent article on "Abraham Lincoln Portraits" I would differ concerning the remarks that certain American composers are of "lesser significance" than Aaron Copland, etc. The truth is that there is a wide range of fine music from composers other than the preferentially treated and more expertly recorded East Coast variety, that have received much praise and support from Lenny and friends and finely tuned performances by the New York Philharmonic and other top ensembles. These subjective statements do little to enhance the listening experience potential for thinking persons, and lead to a distortion of American music history. One could argue that William Grant Still's African American Symphony, recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is really the greatest and most wonderful example of American concert music, and that he really is the most senior and most wonderful 20th Century American composer; but then we must then consider that Copland has more reps of his music for beef commercials, so it must be that he is #1.

I attended the live performance of many of the works on the album given by L. Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony and Chorus last summer, and the large audience enjoyed and appreciated all the music tremendously. This album is very important in its scope and generosity in providing a professionally recorded exposition of composers not afforded this opportunity due to the star system that has developed in serious music over many decades. George Frederick McKay (my father) composed "To A Liberator" well before Copland penned his Lincoln work, but in the past I have heard some naïve remarks by critics that McKay was influenced by Copland; actually he has been quoted in conjunction with being professor of music at the University of Washington, Seattle as being happy that Copland was receiving recognition for advancing American culture musically. This is somewhat typical in terms of misinformation bred by a lack of knowledge of what really was going on in the various regions of America musically during the 20th Century. McKay also has other works relating to Lincoln, including one of 30 minute length that includes orchestral scoring and very wonderful lyrics portraying a humanistic and emotionally alive spirit, beyond the current inventory that we have recently been privileged to hear. His first impulse was to create works relating to his own mellow West Coast environment and heritage, without involving musical trends or personalities 2000 miles distant. I don't believe it has been mentioned, by the way, that the Slatkin recording of "To A Liberator" is a world premiere item. This news may have been lost in a fog of redundant conventional wisdom.

Best Wishes,

Frederick L. McKay


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