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Gordon GETTY (b. 1933)
Young America (2001) [20.55]
Annabel Lee (1990) [6.23]
Three Welsh Songs (1998) [10.13]
Victorian Scenes (1989) [14.23]
Plump Jack (1987): Act Two, Scene Seven Jerusalem [10.55]
Vladimir Chernov (baritone) – Henry IV, Mats Carlsson (tenor) – Hal, Lisa Delan (soprano) – Clarence, Pavlo Hunka (bass-baritone) – Chief Justice, Gunnar Biggersson (baritone) – Warwick
San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas (America, Annabel)
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Stockholm
Russian National Orchestra/Alexander Verdernikov
rec. Regentenbau Concert Hall, Bad Kissingen, July 2003 and DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, October 2004; Davis Symphony Hall, San Francisco, February 2004 (America, Annabel)
PENTATONE PTC5186040 SACD [53.02]

This is a somewhat odd reissue, since it appears to be a totally unchanged copy of a disc originally released back in 2005 which I have already reviewed obliquely for this site on two distinct previous occasions: once in 2013 with reference to the slightly abridged Pentatone recording of Getty’s complete opera Plump Jack and again a couple of years later when reviewing another Pentatone issue of choral music by the composer. On both occasions I went out of my way to recommend this earlier release, describing it in 2015 as “a really marvellous listen” – so I am delighted now to be able to give a lengthier consideration to the disc, whatever the circumstances.

In the first place, the choral works featured on this disc put paid to the often-voiced contention that Gordon Getty is no more than simply a millionaire indulging himself as a dilettante composer. His insistence on producing music that is approachable on first hearing, which thirty years ago when he began his career might have appeared quixotic, is now thankfully restored to the musical mainstream; and the seriousness with which he approaches the setting of the words he chooses (or writes himself) makes a refreshing change from the purely decorative style of some modern composers who similarly seek to appeal to the general listener.

In the second place, the performances themselves – two distinct sessions with different sets of artists (the Moscow patch to one of the Victorian Scenes notwithstanding) – are generally of superior quality to those found on the later discs of Getty’s music. It makes a distinct difference having choral singers of the calibre of the American and Swedish bodies here, with their natural employment of the English language enabling them to engage more closely with the text, as well as established international symphony orchestras to accompany them – although that is not to gainsay the sterling efforts of the German broadcasting bodies responsible for the later issues.

In the third place, the reissue of the original material still brings with it the full texts and introductory notes both by the composer and by James Keller, the latter furnishing us with more information regarding the origins of the music than we find in more recent Getty issues from Pentatone. These notes also come with translations into both German and French, although the lyrics are provided in English only (the three Welsh songs are furnished with English translations by the composer).

The disc begins with the cycle Young America, which is altogether the most impressive of Getty’s choral works I have heard – all the more so since the poems, mostly by the composer himself, seem to strike just the right note with their subtly shifting but striking modulations and occasional outbursts of emotion. The opening Hark the Homeland is a Whitmanesque sort of apotheosis to America, and forms a marvellous contrast to the imitation folk ballad Heather Mary with its haunting cor anglais solo warmly played by Julie Anne Giacobassi. My uncle’s house has a mood reminiscent of Barber’s Knoxville, at once boisterous and dream-like, and after an ominous orchestral War Interlude the dance-like Daughter of Asheville has a haunted quality which continues into the final setting of Stephen Vincent Benét’s positively spooky When Daniel Boone goes by night. The settings of the poems are continuous, and despite their contrasts they cohere into a most convincing unity. The excellent San Francisco chorus also distinguish themselves in the sympathetic setting of Poe’s Annabel Lee, scored for male voices only.

The Victorian Scenes, originally composed as independent a cappella pieces and only subsequently provided with accompaniments, are less satisfactory as a whole. The three settings of Housman (rather oddly described as a Victorian poet, when his first verse was not published until 1896, and his sensibility is so quintessentially Edwardian) tend to lack the sense of desolation that underpins the words. The Tennyson treatments work better, and Getty does make a real attempt in The splendour falls to convey the mysticism of the “horns of Elfland faintly blowing”. Mind you, in that poem he is up against formidable treatments of the same text from Delius and Britten; but his distinct and different approach is equally convincing. On the other hand in the added orchestral accompaniments, the over-closely observed church bells in Tennyson’s The time draws near sound positively alarming.

The settings of the Three Welsh folksongs are effective, if not conspicuously Celtic in tone. His rich treatment of Ar hyd y nos (rendered into English as All through the night) is probably the best of the three, with the approach of night casting a long heavily romantic shadow across the music. The Swedish choir, both here and in the Victorian Scenes, give not the slightest hint of a non-English accent.

The final item on the disc gives us a complete performance of the ‘Jerusalem’ scene of the death of Henry IV from Getty’s opera Plump Jack. This is particularly interesting, as the later recording of the ‘concert version’ of the opera on Pentatone omitted the first four minutes or so from the score, with the extensive narration of the defeat of the rebellion which precipitates the king’s collapse removed. Unfortunately hearing the relevant passage in this older recording does not leave any sense of regret at its later loss; the delivery of the text is very trenchant and recitative-like in tone, with some of Shakespeare’s text at its baldest and most bombastic. The latter part of the scene, on the other hand, is here given with considerably more dramatic involvement; and Vladimir Chernov as the King makes his death into a positive parallel of a Russian czar – “How I came by the crown, O God forgive” has all the overtones of a Boris Godunov as delivered here. Indeed the singing, despite some variable English accents, is generally more effective than on the later recording of the abridged version.

Despite the occasional drawbacks, this is probably the most enjoyable of all the recordings I have encountered of Getty’s music and its reissue is therefore conspicuously welcome. The sound of the various forces and venues involved is well matched, and the presentation is excellent. Those who are tempted to belittle the composer’s abilities are recommended to hear Young America at least before casting aspersions.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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