Jennifer HIGDON (b.1962) The Singing Rooms [37:25]
Alvin SINGLETON (b.1940) Praisemaker (1998) [20:19]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872 – 1915) La Poème d'Extase, op.54 (1905/1908) [21:06]
Jennifer Koh (violin)
Atlanta Symphony Chorus/Norman Mackenzie
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano
rec 7-8 March 2009, Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA. DDD
TELARC 32630 [78:56]

Jennifer Higdon is one of the success stories of contemporary American composition. Her orchestral work blue cathedral is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works, having been performed by more than 250 orchestras since its première in 2000. It was recorded by Spano and the Atlanta Symphony (Telarc 80596 – a mixed programme, coupled with Christopher Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body, Barber’s 1st Symphony and the Suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring). Her powerful Concerto for Orchestra, and City Scape – a tribute to Atlanta, Higdon’s birthplace – have also been recorded by Spano (Telarc 80620). On top of this there are myriad other recordings of her work on various labels. Her recent Violin Concerto, written for Hilary Hahn, won the Pullitzer Prize for music, and has been recorded (Deutsche Grammophon 1 469802, Hilary Hahn and the Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko, coupled with the Tchaikovky Concerto). So she has been lucky enough to achieve recognition in front of the public and, according to her website, she “…maintains a full schedule of commissions and her music is known for its technical skill and audience appeal.” She is a fine composer and it is good to find one who can communicate with their audience, and get regular performances.

The Singing Rooms is a violin concerto, written for Jennifer Koh, for whom Higdon had previously composed a sonata with piano called String Poetic (2006), and a cantata for there is an important part for chorus. There are few works for solo instrument, chorus and orchestra. Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi springs to mind, and mention of VW is apposite for this work has a very English sound to much of it. The opening movement – Three Windows: Two Versions of the Day – is a quiet, contemplative, chorale whose spell is broken by a swift, breathless, and somewhat ghostly, scherzo. Two more movements in the same vein lead into a third scherzo, again restrained, which in turn leads into A Word with God in which Higdon builds an imposing climax for the chorus and orchestra, the violin left to comment after the event. The final movement – Three Windows: Two Versions of the Day – is a prayer and makes a serene ending. The seven movements play continuously and there is real growth and a sense of purpose to the music. This is Higdon at her very best, thoughtful, and meditative, never overstating the case, and writing music of mystical beauty. Indeed, I would say that this is one the best pieces I have heard from her.

Alvin Singleton is a new name to me. He lives in Atlanta and was composer in residence for his orchestra for three years. He subsequently held the same position with four other organisations. “Melody is seldom an important organizing principle in Singleton’s composing…” the booklet notes tell us. “Timbre, or instrumental color, is of central interest in his music. ‘I just hang on the color of mixing instruments together’”. All well and good but you cannot, unless you are a Varèse or have a very special command of music, get away with unmelodic music, based on timbre alone. The big problem here is that Singleton’s comment, ‘I just hang on the color of mixing instruments together’ is utterly meaningless. I have looked at this several ways and can make neither head nor tail of it. Certainly the music goes nowhere, is rather dour and colourless, fails to make an impression, and the timbral mix is dull.

Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy could never be called dour or dull. Here is hothouse music if ever there was such a thing. Starting quietly, and almost non–committal, Spano builds a big edifice with a powerful climax which he manages to keep under control. It is all the better for not going over–the–top, as so often happens with the peroration of this work.

You’re buying this disk for the Jennifer Higdon work and I think that it won’t disappoint. The Scriabin makes a nice makeweight but the Singleton piece is worth avoiding. The sound is exemplary, easily capturing the full orchestra at the end of the Poème. The notes contain full texts. Don’t miss this fine work by Higdon and find out why she is so fêted. She’s worth it.

Bob Briggs

Don’t miss this fine work by Higdon.