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Transmigration
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings (1938) [8:54]
Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Dooryard Bloom (2005) [23:25]
John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
Elegy (1965) [8:19]
John ADAMS (b. 1947)
On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) [22:52]
Samuel BARBER
Agnus Dei (1967) [7:35]
Nmon Ford (baritone: Higdon); Gwinnett Young Singers (Adams);
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (Adams, Agnus)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano
rec. 25 September 2006 and 9-10 February 2008, Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia. DSD
Texts included
TELARC CD-80673 [72:31]

Experience Classicsonline

This intelligently planned album of music by American composers is built around the concept of “Honor and remembrance” in the words of the booklet annotator. It also serves as a demonstration that “modern composers also contribute to remembering our heroes, both personal and universal.”

In many ways it was a good idea to bookend the programme with Samuel Barber’s noble Adagio, not least because, ever since it was broadcast on American radio immediately after the announcement of the death of President Roosevelt in 1945, it has gradually assumed the status of America’s unofficial musical elegy. The fact that Barber never intended his piece in that context, just as Elgar never conceived ‘Nimrod’ from the ‘Enigma’ Variations as an elegy, is almost irrelevant; both pieces have come to be regarded in that way in their respective countries. Since Barber himself made the choral version of his piece, which closes this present programme, it is authentic. I must say I’m never sure that it quite works in this format, not least because the tessitura is so demanding, especially for the sopranos. The singers of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus do the piece well but it’s noteworthy that Robert Spano takes over a minute longer when he has the very fine strings of the ASO at his disposal instead. After all, there are limits to the capacity of the human lungs and that opportunity for greater spaciousness is the other reason why I prefer to hear this music played by a string orchestra - or indeed, by a string quartet, as Barber originally conceived it. But in both forms, Barber’s piece is well served here.

Having said that it was a good idea to open and close the disc with Barber’s piece, perhaps a trick has been missed here. There are moments in On the Transmigration of Souls that recall Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question and I do wonder if it would not have made for an even more satisfying and perceptive programme if that masterpiece had been substituted for the Agnus Dei

There’s a link with Barber in the short piece by John Corigliano in that his Elegy was dedicated to Barber, though the point is properly made in the booklet that this was in no way a memorial piece: Barber was very much alive in 1965. Elegy was Corigliano’s first work for full orchestra and the booklet includes a quotation from him to the effect that the piece “identifies itself with neo-romantic American style” as typified by the likes of Barber, William Schuman or Walter Piston. I’d not come across this piece before but I was very impressed by it. It certainly inhabits the same musical territory as the afore-mentioned composers. It has a strong melodic base and Corigliano shows himself to be in command of the orchestra, first orchestral piece or not. It seems to me also that it’s a disciplined work, both in terms of its scoring and its succinct length. I admired very much the nobility and restrained tone of this fine piece and it receives a dedicated performance from Spano and his orchestra.

Another piece new to me was Jennifer Higdon’s Dooryard Bloom. However, I’ve come across Miss Higdon’s music before, most notably in 2004, when I reviewed a fine disc devoted to her music, also by Spano and the Atlanta orchestra (Telarc CD-80620 review). Miss Higdon, whose teachers have included Robert Spano and Ned Rorem, frequently writes to commission and this present work was commissioned by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave the première in 2005 when the soloist was Nmon Ford, the soloist in this present performance. I noted with interest a comment made in the booklet for that earlier CD by Nick Jones, who is the annotator of this latest release also. Jones said then of Miss Higdon that she is a composer who “tends to think in terms of melody and color when she composes, rather than thematically.” I only came across that comment after completing my listening to Dooryard Bloom but it’s very apposite to this latest work, I believe.

Dooryard Bloom is a substantial setting for baritone and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Paul Hindemith made a notable setting of these words for chorus and orchestra in 1946 (Telarc CD-80132) and other composers, including Roger Sessions (set in 1964-70 and recorded on New World Records 80296), have been drawn to the poem also. Miss Higdon’s is a most impressive piece of work. I admire it for several reasons. For a start, for all the high-flown rhetoric of Whitman’s verses, her setting is notably restrained - there are only two or three climactic outbursts in the whole score and the very scarcity of such passages adds to their effect. Secondly, the orchestral writing is inventive and evocative. The vocal line is never submerged, nor does the instrumental detail distract from the vocal part but rather it enhances and complements the singer’s line most effectively and imaginatively. And then there’s the vocal part itself. Almost throughout the work the singer is given striking and lyrical music to sing and the strongly melodic music fits into what would be natural patterns of speech most convincingly. Though the vocal line, which often lies in the upper register of the baritone compass, sounds very grateful to sing it’s still a significant challenge to the soloist, who sings almost continuously. There’s one fairly short orchestral interlude, lasting about a minute (from around 12:20) but otherwise the soloist never has more than a bar or two of rest at any time. It’s a tribute to Nmon Ford’s concentration and vocal stamina that he seems to sustain this long timespan effortlessly. His is a fine voice, light and easy at the top but with a good, solid middle and bottom. His voice is produced evenly and pleasingly throughout its compass and his consistently clear diction is a delight. He puts the text across with conviction but without exaggeration.

I was reminded on more than one occasion of the vocal music of Samuel Barber, the doyen of American songwriters. Not all listeners will respond to Whitman’s somewhat overwrought imagery but I think Miss Higdon has produced a very considerable work here and my impression is that it could scarcely receive finer advocacy than it does from Nmon Ford and Robert Spano. 

If Dooryard Bloom was new to me then John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls is not, for I reviewed its first recording here in 2004. For a more detailed discussion of the work itself and its structure I’d refer readers either to that review or, even more pertinently, to the review of the same disc by Neil Horner. That first recording was made at the first run of live performances by Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, who commissioned it, and there was nothing else on the disc. In my review I commented that “it would have been an impertinence to include any other music on the disc.” I think that view was right at the time but we move on. The events of 9/11 are still raw in the consciousness of the world, but perhaps just a little less so, with the passage of time, and Telarc’s decision to programme On the Transmigration of Souls with other music and to set it in a wider musical context is surely appropriate.

I find there’s not a great deal to choose between the two performances, though I note that Robert Spano’s account, presumably made under studio conditions, takes a little less time that Maazel’s reading, which comes in at 25:04. The Nonesuch recording seems to have been cut at a slightly higher level and one benefit of this is that the innocent, everyday street sounds that are heard at the start of the piece - and at other points during the work - register with a bit more clarity.

One difference between the two recordings concerns the references to Ives’s The Unanswered Question to which I referred at the top of this review. This occurs particularly at around 3:50 where a soft trumpet solo recalls Ives’s masterpiece. Maazel brings out the reference, quite naturally - and in the booklet the solo trumpeter is even credited. However, in the Spano version one has to strain to hear the (uncredited) trumpeter. That may be in part because the Atlanta chorus is recorded just a bit more closely than Maazel’s choir. But perhaps Spano doesn’t view the Ives reference in the same way.

Though I’ve mentioned a couple of points of detail I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that one performance is “better” than the other for both, it seems to me, realise Adams’s imaginative and dignified musical soundscape very successfully. I most certainly won’t be parting with my copy of Maazel’s recording, not least because it’s an important document in its own right. But Telarc have done the right thing in allowing us now to hear On the Transmigration of Souls in company with other music, rather than in isolation.

I’m still uncertain whether On the Transmigration of Souls will stand the test of time. I don’t doubt its sincerity, and Adams’s artistic courage and inventiveness in taking on so challenging a subject and in fulfilling the commission without descending into bathos or resorting to bombast is greatly to be admired. I just wonder, however, if On the Transmigration of Souls is linked so intimately to one catastrophic event that it can never escape that link and become a work of art with a more general application. That, perhaps, is where pieces such as Dooryard Bloom may come to have an advantage in time. 

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking disc and one that contains a good deal of fine and moving music. All the performances are of premium quality and Telarc’s recorded sound - I listened in conventional CD format - is superb. Nick Jones contributes an excellent booklet note, though David Schiff, who had the luxury of being required only to write about one piece, produced an even more detailed note about On the Transmigration of Souls for Nonesuch and newcomers to the work will learn even more about it if they can complement Mr Jones’s note by reading Schiff’s thoughts.

I congratulate Telarc on this enterprising and rewarding disc, which evidences some of the most intelligent and perceptive programming I’ve come across in quite a long time.

John Quinn  

 


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