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Mason BATES (b. 1977)
Children of Adam [28:04]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Dona Nobis Pacem [33:06]
Michelle Areyzaga (soprano); Kevin Deas (bass-baritone)
Richmond Symphony Chorus
Richmond Symphony/Steven Smith
rec. live 8-9 April, 2017 (Vaughan Williams), 11-12 May, 2018 (Bates) HDCD
Texts included

The link between the two works presented here is the poetry of Walt Whitman; both works are settings of his and others’ poems and texts. Before encountering the CD, I had read reviews of Mason Bates, an American composer whose works have received considerable acclaim and publicity, but Children of Adam is the first that I have heard.

Bates has chosen to use a large mixed choir in his setting, without solo voices, and this omission strikes me as a weakness. Rarely do the male and female voices separate, resulting in a degree of sonic ‘sameness’ to the work’s sections. The chorus members are listed in the booklet and so I can see that they form a respectably sized group, but for some reason they do not really sound to be so in the recording. There are more women than men, the latter numbering around forty to the women’s sixty, and maybe this contributes to the somewhat female sound produced. Not that this is a criticism of the singers, merely a comment as to how I perceive their voices as reproduced in the recording.

Bates has been very active in the field of integrating electronic sounds within the orchestra, and has won awards and acclaim for so doing. Whilst the booklet lists the Richmond orchestra in full, section by section, I can see no mention of any electronic content, and indeed, I can detect no synthesized sound. The orchestration is made interesting by the inclusion of prominent percussive outbursts including celeste (I think), although their appearance sometimes gives the impression of being random, so sudden and unexpected are those appearances.

Melodically, I find the composer’s inspiration to be a little bland, though thoroughly tonal, and whilst his opening setting of the lines of Whitman’s “Children of Adam” is impactive, I think that his inspiration falters somewhat in the succeeding parts of the work.

I’m sorry that I cannot be more enthusiastic about this piece, because I am pleased that so many current American composers (and British ones) have managed to escape from the serial straightjacket that has alienated so many classical music enthusiasts.

It is accompanied by a work that I have known and loved for over four decades, and the fact the RVW uses soprano and baritone soloists to support and contrast the choir immediately tells on this listener. Of course, I am much more familiar with the melodic and textural lines of Dona Nobis Pacem, and the 15th Century saying “comparisons are odious” springs to mind, but in truth, it is difficult not to make comparisons.

However, if I concentrate on the RVW work, it is quite rare to find non-British recordings, although many years ago I became aware from regularly reading Fanfare magazine, that many Americans appreciate English music and that of Vaughan Williams’ in particular. The orchestra, chorus and soloists certainly seem to be thoroughly committed to the piece. The soprano has a beautiful voice, perhaps occasionally a little tremulous, but she soars very effectively when required and the baritone is vocally well-endowed, singing clearly and effectively. I occasionally wished that the conductor had generated a rather more intense performance, but I am generally impressed by the overall rendering of the work, and the orchestra play well. There is no noticeable audience noise.

Reference Recordings have a well-deserved reputation for producing state-of-the-art recordings, and this one exhibits a very natural sounding acoustic, with no over exaggeration of the solo voices in the Vaughan Williams. Similarly, the temptation to give the chorus a greater-than-natural presence in the Bates has been resisted. The booklet is very detailed with lots of information about the music, chorus, orchestra, conductor and choral director. It is in English only.

Jim Westhead
Previous review: John Quinn

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