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Mason BATES (b 1977)
Children of Adam (2018) [28:04]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) [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 booklet cover includes the strapline ‘Inspired by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)’. Whitman’s poetry is the thread that links these two otherwise very different choral/orchestral works: three sections of each work are settings of his verses.
Children of Adam was commissioned by the Richmond Symphony to mark their 60th anniversary. As the composer writes in the booklet, the work is “a collection of exuberant celebrations of creation, from American poets to sacred and Native American texts.” There are seven sections, three of which set words from Whitman’s Children of Adam. These Whitman sections are, in Bates’ words, short “fanfare intermezzos”. I must admit to mixed feelings about Walt Whitman’s poetry. His verses have inspired some great music, not least, as we shall see, from Vaughan Williams, but his hot-house imagery often seems embarrassingly overwrought and self-indulgent to me. Bates has here set some choice examples of the sort of thing I have in mind, such as ‘From my own voice resonant, singing the phallus, /Singing the song of procreation’. That comes in the first section of Bates’ score and the complete text definitely inspires him to write a big, strong and exuberant opening. It’s a real call to attention and the chorus and orchestra get hold of it with relish. There follows a movement in which words from Psalms 144 and 128 are sung. Here, affording necessary contract after the high-octane opening, much of the music features light, delicate textures in which good use is made of harp and subtle percussion.

Another burst of Whitman follows. Incidentally, though the texts are provided in the booklet, it seems that a large chunk of the words that are sung in this section have been missed out. We then come to the longest section, ‘Tolepe Menenak’ (Turtle Island). Unusually, this is a setting of Native American words. The text comes from the Mataponi Indians, whose reservation is close to the farm in Virginia which Mason Bates’ family owns. The language is East Coast Algonquian. This movement is impressive. The music is slow and at the start the orchestral material is soft and atmospheric: an aura of calm is created. As the movement unfolds, the volume and intensity grow before the movement sinks back to a subdued close. Then we hear settings of two poems by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967). Since the first of these in particular, ‘Prayers of Steel’ concerns the Industrial Revolution, it’s appropriate that Bates’ scoring makes considerable use of metallic percussion.

Bates then sets the Creation story, as related in the Book of Genesis. This is well-imagined musically, especially in the orchestral scoring, and the piece builds in power as the story unfolds. This leads without a break into the last Whitman passage which, once again, has music of energy and celebration. The work achieves a grand-slam finish.

I have mixed feelings about Children of Adam. Notwithstanding my reservations about Walt Whitman’s purple poetry (which is a subjective response, anyway) I think Bates has assembled his texts discerningly, and structurally the piece hangs together well. The orchestral writing is full of colour and interest even if, like so many modern composers, Bates seems a bit over-keen on the percussion section. Two things give me pause for thought, though. One is that the choral writing is essentially homophonic; I struggle to recall a single instance of choral counterpoint. Secondly, for all its colour and enthusiasm, I’m afraid I don’t find the music all that memorable. I’ve listened to it a few times now but I don’t believe that any of it has lodged in my memory. Still, there’s no doubting the commitment with which the choir and orchestra tackle the piece; after weeks of rehearsal they were clearly more conversant with it than I am.

Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem could scarcely be more different. It too was written for an anniversary – in this case the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society – and use is made of poetry by Walt Whitman, but there all similarities with Children of Adam end. Mason Bates’ piece was celebratory in nature – and rightly so – but VW was working against a backdrop of ever-deepening political storm clouds in Europe in the 1930s and his cantata is an impassioned plea for peace.

Unlike Children of Adam which is for chorus and orchestra only, Dona Nobis Pacem requires two soloists, a soprano and a baritone. I was mildly surprised that the booklet contains no information whatsoever on either soloist, both of whom are American, which seems a bit discourteous. After a bit of research I discovered that Kevin Deas’s discography includes a recording of Haydn’s Creation in which he impressed my colleague Simon Thompson (review) Michelle Areyzaga didn’t impress Robert Hugill quite so much on a disc of music by Lita Grier; Robert was troubled by her “vibrato and rather mature tone”, which he felt were unsuited to the music (review). I wasn’t conscious of those issues in this instance. It appears from their respective websites that both of these artists have strong operatic pedigrees.

I liked both of the soloists. Ms Areyzaga is suitably beseeching but she also has the vocal heft to ride the loudest passages in which she’s involved. The first time I played the disc I wasn’t sure I was going to like Kevin Deas. There was something about his production of some words which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. However, on further acquaintance I warmed to him, even if he doesn’t banish memories of the likes of Bryn Terfel (on Richard Hickox’s recording) or Sir Thomas Allen in this role. Deas is heard at his very best, I believe, in the ‘O man greatly beloved’ solo.

The chorus has a lot of work to do in this cantata and the Richmond Symphony Chorus acquit themselves well. There’s excellent attack, and also good clarity of words, in ‘Beat! beat! Drums’. Later, they bring ample vigour to the ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation’ section. This extended episode is one where, as I know well, the chorus members have to count like mad to ensure that entries are spot on and the various choral parts are accurately delivered. The Richmond singers do very well here in one of several passages in the work that are full of the skilled counterpoint that was so lacking in Mason Bates’ choral writing. If I have a criticism of the choir it would be that they don’t make enough of the dynamic contrasts in the work; quiet dynamics are not sufficiently observed. This failing is noticeable, for instance, in the third movement, ‘Reconciliation’ and at the start of ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’. To be fair to the singers, it’s possible that the microphones were set fairly close to them so that they would be fully audible in some of VW’s loudest and most heavily scored passages. The Richmond Symphony plays well; there’s plenty of power in the stirring climaxes of ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ and, like the choir, they convey the clamour and urgency of ‘Beat! beat! Drums’.

Reference Recordings have issued this disc under their ‘Fresh!’ imprint, so the recording isn’t an in-house production. The recorded sound has plenty of impact in both works and there’s a good balance between choir and orchestra. The soloists are well recorded. Though the recordings were made live in concert there’s no audience noise that I could detect; applause has been edited out. The booklet is clearly laid out, though I was disappointed in the notes about Dona Nobis Pacem. The author says virtually nothing about the music itself and I doubt his note will be a great help to anyone unfamiliar with the piece.

If the coupling appeals, this disc contains well-recorded and -performed accounts of two very different Whitman-inspired choral works.

John Quinn

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