Lewis SPRATLAN (b. 1940)
In Memoriam (1993) [52:06]; Streaming (2006) [16:18]
Sharon Hayes, Melinda Spratlan (sopranos), Jon Humphrey (tenor), Donald Barnum, Nathaniel Watson (baritone), Yvonne Lam (violin), David Kim (viola), Christian-Pierre La Marca (cello), Xiang Zon (piano)
The Amherst College Choral Society/Jonathan Hirsch
The Valley Festival Orchestra/Lewis Spratlan
rec. 3 April 1993, Buckley Recital Hall, Amherst College, Amherst MA [1-4] and 23 June 2004, Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL, USA. DDD
NAVONA NV5810 [68:31]
This well-presented disc also comes with study scores as PDF files, a useful way for a composer to himself to musicians of all kinds. The main feature of the disc is In Memoriam, a four-movement work lasting almost an hour. Scored for orchestra, choir and solo singers, this was written to commemorate the victims of Columbus’s conquests, and in particular, the Mayans. Spratlan sets Mayan texts, along with poems by Neruda and Vallejo.
The opening Prologue establishes an expressive atmosphere, with a commanding solo tenor line from Jon Humphrey. Spratlan’s scoring is carefully balanced, with instrumental lines adding colour to the tenor part. The Prophecy which follows is more chaotic, with strong rhythms and the orchestra dissolving into a frenzy of panic. Other sections contrast with unisons, which seem to dissipate some of the dramatic tension. The tone is dark, predicting an invasion and the loss of the Mayan society. The second section is entitled The Hero, and explores a fantasy view of a hero, modelled on the conquistadors. Here the scoring becomes muddier in the mid-range, and I felt my attention starting to wander. Part Three, Death and Lives of a Revolutionary opens with an imperious vocal solo, with pitched notes combined with some wonderful Sprechgesang. This is one of the highlights of the work and is performed magnificently. The final section is a setting of Neruda’s Mexican Serenade and a Mayan Prayer to the Sun, both associated with the survival of the Mayan people. A South American Festival feel takes over momentarily, but the dark influence of the invasion is still ominously present.
This is an ambitious project, which has appeal. The recording has some high points, most notably Jon Humphrey’s singing. The plot is more a collection of related texts rather than a story as such, and the link to Columbus is not always immediately clear, especially in the central sections. The lack of clarity that is sometimes present in the orchestral scoring may in part be down to the recording acoustic. Both works on the disc were recorded live and that might also have some bearing on the sound. Overall, though, this is a piece with much to offer, and one that would benefit from repeated hearings. Spratlan’s writing is imaginative and at times adventurous, particularly in the vocal writing, and the large forces used here are handled well.
Streaming is scored for violin, viola, cello and piano. A toccata-style opening is accompanied by bouncing quavers, with the string parts contained within the same pitch range for the opening of the work. A more static section follows, with a greater sense of space and solo lines emerging from the harmonies. After a further brief outburst, the music becomes lyrical, reminiscent of a 1920s music-hall. The fast material maintains the direction and momentum, while the momentary lapses into different styles are distractions along the way. This is a successful compositional approach, with the fast material providing a sense of unity while the other sections serve as contrast.

Carla Rees