Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987)
Mass (1960) [17:10]
William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Carols of Death (1958) [10:20]
William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
The Mask (1990) [19:00]
Irving FINE (1914-1962)
The Hour-Glass (1949) [13:13]
Lukas FOSS (1922-2009)
Psalms (1956) [13:32]
Meredith Ruduski (soprano); Lisa Sunset Holt (soprano); Carla Flores (alto); Sarah Bannon (alto); John Len Wiles (tenor); Eric Neuville (baritone); Dwight Bigler (piano); Alena Gorina (piano);
University of Texas Chamber Singers/James Morrow
rec. 21-22 May 2007, University Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas
NAXOS 8.559358 [73:15]

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 as here.

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.

William Hedley

A superb recital of twentieth-century American choral music.