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Recordings

American Choral Music
03 May 2007

American Choral Music

The commitment of Naxos to American music is substantial and admirable.

American Choral Music

Susanne Mentzer (mezzo-soprano), University of Texas Chamber Singers, University of Texas Chamber Orchestra, James Morrow (cond.)

Naxos 8.559299 [CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

In their best recordings, the company’s reputation as a budget-price label becomes almost incidental. The performances are professional, often inspired, and the repertoire not limited to more popular composers such as Copland or Bernstein.

The disc “American Choral Music” is a fine example. James Morrow leads the University of Texas Chamber Singers in a program of pieces by Persichetti, Ives, Corigliano, Foss, and yes, Copland — but even then, the seldom-heard Biblical setting, In the Beginning.

A demanding group, choral music fans should find much to enjoy here. Some works are for chorus alone (Ives’s Psalm 90), one has organ accompaniment (Foss’s Behold, I Build a House), and the others employ the University Chamber Orchestra. With Susanne Mentzer as soloist in the Corigliano and Foss works, this disc has an enjoyable variety of structure and technique.

Nonetheless, some pieces will appeal more than others, and your reviewer found the opening set of short e.e. cumming’s settings by Persichetti, Flower Songs, to be an absolute delight that the rest of the material does not quite match. Persichetti tends to lay a mist-like instrumental fabric under the vocal line, so that the words come through distinctly. As all the works center on floral imagery, the pastel colors of the scoring feel appropriate, though having at least one more rhythmically charged piece might have been advised.

In Psalm 90, the Ives piece, the denser writing for chorus means that often individual words get lost. This music doesn’t come from Ives in bold iconoclast mode, and a dreariness sets in as the work proceeds to its conclusion at the 11-minute mark. Perhaps dreary is how Ives heard religious music.

Whereas the Ives piece comes from late in the composer’s career, Corigliano’s Fern Hill is an earlier work. Your reviewer heard some of the melancholy lyricism of Samuel Barber in the gentle music here, and the chorus admirably sustains a lighter approach.

With an insistent organ part (played by Seung Won Cho), Lukas Foss’s Behold, I Build an House also requires much full chorus contribution, and with Naxos unable to provide texts, most of the words pass by in an aural blur.

Setting the familiar lines of Genesis, Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning uses a call-and-response structure, with Mentzer leading the chorus. Just as the piece starts to become somewhat repetitive, Copland speeds things up. While that helps to keep the listener’s interest, as might be expected the words run together as the chorus speeds through them. With this piece as with the other religious settings on the disc, there is more of a sense of writing in a tradition than through actual spiritual inspiration.

Admirers of choral music will probably find much of interest on the entire disc, but for most listeners, the greatest rewards will come with the Persichetti Flower Songs. At Naxos’s prices, that still earns the entire disc a warm recommendation.

Chris Mullins

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