This is the second Naxos recital with the same title from
these performers. The first (8.559299)
was recorded in January 2006 and features two of the same composers
The present disc opens with Vincent Persichetti’s Mass
of 1960. Caroline Polk O’Meara’s booklet notes tell us that
the work was conceived more for liturgical than for concert
use, and first impressions confirm this. But first impressions
can deceive too, and this mass is not really the austere, even
severe composition that I initially thought. Repeated listening
reveals a retrained, even understated work, but not an austere
one. Most of the text is set to one note per syllable, and this,
combined with the excellent diction of the University of Texas
Chamber Singers, ensures that we hear every word. The work is
based around a single theme, announced in unison at the outset.
Only in the Sanctus does the music feel less focused, less convincing
in the way it relates to the text. The Agnus Dei, however, wherein
the composer relaxes a little his rule on syllabic word setting,
is totally successful, the work closing serenely and touchingly
on a bare fifth - not on a unison as the notes erroneously inform
us. Getting to know this work has been a rewarding experience,
and in spite of one or two difficult corners, it would make
a most satisfying project for any competent amateur choir seeking
to explore lesser known repertoire.
William Schuman’s almost contemporaneous and discouragingly
entitled Carols of Death is more of a challenge, both
for the performers and for the listener. The three pieces of
which the work is composed are settings of words by Walt Whitman.
The first two are largely homophonic, with a fair amount of
chromatic writing mixed with extensive use of diatonic dissonance.
There is some affecting word painting, particularly in the first
song, and the second, which sets some of the same words as did
Vaughan Williams in Toward the Unknown Region, opens
with the words “Dearest thou now, O Soul” repeatedly passed
from one voice to another in a way that presages John Adams.
The third is a meditative setting of a single Whitman stanza,
the music tender and touching, as the poet launches the invitation
“Come lovely and soothing death.” Less immediately attractive
that the Persichetti, the work similarly rewards patient attention.
With The Hour-Glass, the composer Irving Fine makes his
first appearance in my recorded collection. I’ll be making sure
it isn’t the last. Composed in 1949, this is the earliest music
on this disc. It is also, I think, the finest. This is perhaps
confirmed, consciously or unconsciously, by the cover photo.
Setting six short lyrics by Ben Jonson, the composer, in spite
of a fairly advanced musical language, avoids any suspicion
of anachronism. This is virtuoso choral writing, with even more
challenging parts for the six soloists who more than justify
their identification in the booklet and above. Indeed, it is
the kind of visionary choral writing that requires great faith
on the part of the composer. The first piece, for example, demands
pinpoint accuracy in fast moving polyphony, without which it
simply would not work. Most composers wouldn’t have dared. This
superb choir succeeds admirably, thus rewarding the composer’s
faith and vision. The words are always clear, too, thanks both
to the performers’ skill and to the composer’s remarkable mastery
of choral writing. The six songs are very varied, but each is
as beautiful as the others. And I choose the word “beautiful”
deliberately and without hesitation; anyone with doubts is invited
to sample the second song, “Have you seen the white lily grow”,
a simple and timeless setting of these lovely words, hugely
respectful, matter of fact, even, in its way of presenting them,
and very, very easy on the ear.
As is now the case with many Naxos releases, you have to go
to the company’s website if you want to follow the sung texts.
Finding them within Ben Jonson’s works is a challenge, as the
composer obviously searched and read widely before he found
the texts he wanted. Lukas Foss’s Psalms is easier in
this respect. The first of the three pieces takes verses from
Psalm 122, “I will life up mine eyes unto the hills”, the second,
Psalm 98, “Sing unto the Lord a new song”, and the third, Psalm
23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In any event, there is much repetition
of words and very little text is actually used. The work is
scored for mixed choir, with two vocal soloists, and two pianos.
The first movement is calm, with many beautiful moments, and
seems a fine response to the calm certitude of the words. The
second, by far the longest of the three, features a complex
polyphonic texture, including a fugal passage which seems mischievous
and playful where sheer, unbuttoned joy is what’s wanted. Calm
is restored for the brief meditation which is the third movement.
The problem of availability of the texts is compounded in The
Mask. Bolcom is the only composer featured on this disc
who is still alive, and his piece is the most recent of the
programme. The original idea for the piece came from pianist
Natalie Hinderas, and indeed there is an imposing piano part
to this cycle of five songs, plus, strangely placed just before
the short final song, a solo piano piece entitled “Interlude
for Natalie”. The five poems are by twentieth-century African
American writers, and, according to the note, deal with “the
theme of the mask and hidden identity.” Whilst one can fully
understand the Naxos reasoning, printing out the words then
storing them somewhere afterwards is, at very least, a nuisance.
A pity, too, since we need help to find our way properly into
this fine and challenging work. The notes refer to the “deep
diversity” of the composer’s musical language, and indeed, from
the second song, which is a cheerful ragtime – though with a
serious heart – we pass directly to a piano introduction to
the third song which could almost have been written by Messiaen.
Listening to these works without the score it is nonetheless
obvious that all the performances from this fine choir, its
soloists and two pianists are outstanding. The recording is
superb. Altogether, this is an issue not to be missed by those
for whom the programme is attractive.