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American Voices Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Chichester Psalms (1965) [17:56] Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
Alleluia (1940) [5:08] Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
In The Beginning (1947) [17:02] Nico MUHLY (b 1981)
Bright Mass with Canons (2005) [14:13] Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Agnus Dei (1936/1967) [7:49] Daniel CASTELLANOS (b 1995)
Eternal Light (2008) [2:36] Ned ROREM (b 1923)
Sing My Soul [2:17]
O God, My Heart is Ready (1992) [3:39] Gerre HANCOCK (1934-2012)
Deep River (arrangement, 1980) [3:38]
Meg Bragle (mezzo-soprano); Frederick Teardo (organ); Anna Reinersman (harp); Maya Gunji (percussion)
Saint Thomas Choir of Men & Boys/John Scott
rec. 2009 (?), Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York. DDD
Texts included RESONUS CLASSICS RES10187 [74:18]
Here’s another welcome issue by Resonus Classics from the recorded legacy of the late John Scott during his time as Director of Music at Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue (2004-15). I’m not sure when the recordings were made – inexplicably, this information is not given – but I infer from the copyright date on John Scott’s note that it was around 2009. The programme opens with three of the most important works in the literature of American choral music after which several of the remaining pieces have strong links with Saint Thomas’ Church and its choir.
Bernstein’s vibrant Chichester Psalms are very well done in the version with accompaniment by organ, harp and percussion. The singing in the first movement is exciting and enthusiastic, the trebles’ tone imparting a good edge to the choral sound. You have to dig deep into the small print in the booklet to discover that the important solo role in the second movement is taken by David Abraham DeVeau, one of the Saint Thomas trebles. He does a very good job. Ideally, the choir’s attack in the vigorous central section could have had a bit more bite to it but perhaps the acoustic of the church was working against them. I should say, though, that here and elsewhere in the programme the choir’s diction is pretty good. After a potent organ introduction by Frederick Teardo the lovely flowing third movement is beautifully sung.
Scott leads a nice, flowing account of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia which he aptly describes in the notes as a “masterpiece of introspection”. There’s nothing introverted, though, about the way the choir delivers the climax when it arrives and I like the urgency that Scott brings to the build-up to that climax.
It’s amazing to think that Aaron Copland had never written a substantial choral work when he accepted the commission to compose what became In The Beginning. The resulting piece gives no clue as to his relative inexperience in this genre. Copland’s setting of the Creation narrative, as recorded in the Book of Genesis is masterly but it needs top-class performers to bring it off. I’ve heard the American mezzo, Meg Bragle a few times in the past, singing Bach for Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Looking back on those reviews I see that I found her a good singer but a little plain of tone. That’s certainly not the case here. She sings the important mezzo role extremely well and with great clarity. I especially like the way she leads the dancing music for the fourth day. The choir has some extremely challenging music to sing but they pull it off, giving an excellent performance that’s not only technically accomplished but also full of conviction. By the time the choir reaches the ecstatic climax at the end of the piece you feel they’ve earned the acclamation with which Copland draws his Creation piece to a conclusion.
Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass with Canons was written for the Saint Thomas choir and it’s an interesting, unusual concept; Muhly has composed all or part of each one of its four short sections (there’s no Credo) as a canon. It’s very ingenious but the good thing is that despite the technical accomplishment behind the writing, the piece is anything but dry and academic. The music communicates very well. I especially like the Agnus Dei, which is very beautiful, so much so that one completely forgets to listen out for a canon.
Barber’s own choral arrangement of his celebrated Adagio comes off very well. The Saint Thomas trebles are fearless in the face of some dauntingly high passages and the singing of the whole choir is very controlled – as it needs to be in order to sustain those long lines. The climax near the end is very strong but not over-sung.
Daniel Castellanos is an alumnus of the Saint Thomas Choir School. He wrote Eternal Light at the invitation of John Scott. In it he sets some lines by Alcuin of York (c 735-804) for unaccompanied choir. On this evidence Castellanos has a very good ear for choral textures and his piece is most appealing.
Ned Rorem’s songs rightly receive much acclaim – they constitute a significant contribution to the genre. His choral music is, perhaps, not as well-known as it deserves. I’ve heard Sing My Soul before. It’s a very lovely piece for unaccompanied choir which Scott and his singers do very well indeed. I don’t believe I’ve heard O God, My Heart is Ready before. It was written for the Saint Thomas choir during the tenure of Gerre Hancock and in it Rorem sets words from Psalm 108. It’s an extrovert, virtuoso piece for the singers and the dynamic organ part sounds no less challenging. The writing is informed by strong rhythmic energy throughout. The contrast between these two Rorem pieces could not be greater. Both are winners.
Finally, John Scott pays a small tribute to his distinguished predecessor, Gerre Hancock who served as Director of Music at Saint Thomas Church from 1971 until 2004. As Scott says, this arrangement of Deep River is “lush” and it’s devotedly sung.
This is an interesting, very enjoyable and expertly performed programme which has been very well recorded by engineer John C. Baker. I’ve enjoyed and admired several of these Resonus discs featuring the work of John Scott in New York and I hope more will be forthcoming. In passing, though, I wonder if we might soon get to hear a recording of the choir under John Scott’s successor, Daniel Hyde.
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