AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC. PERSICHETTI: Flower Songs. CORIGLIANO: Fern Hill. COPLAND: In the Beginning. FOSS: Behold, I Build an House. IVES: Psalm 90

AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC • James Morrow, cond; University of Texas Chamber Singers and Chamber Orchestra; Susanne Mentzer (mez) • NAXOS 8.559299 (72:11)
PERSICHETTI Flower Songs. CORIGLIANO Fern Hill. COPLAND In the Beginning. FOSS Behold, I Build an House. IVES Psalm 90

This recent Naxos release offers a selection of significant American choral music, meticulously performed and recorded. Although I was not previously familiar with their work, the University of Texas Chamber Singers, based in Austin, have been around for half a century now, and their current conductor, James Morrow, has brought them to a very high standard. Their performances here display considerable sensitivity and refinement, with precise intonation, and exquisite tonal blend and balance. And mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer renders the solo portions of these works with considerable artistry, although at times her voice reveals a hard edge.

I must confess to finding the program itself of somewhat uneven musical interest. The two strongest works easily justify acquisition of the disc, while the three others … Well, I’m sure they will hold appeal for some listeners. The major offering here is, without question, the Persichetti Flower Songs, presented in their first recording. With a duration of approximately twenty minutes, they were composed in 1983, and are among the composer’s final works. He had not written for chorus in almost a decade, and this final contribution was something of a farewell to the medium, as well as a farewell to one of his favorite and most often-set poets, E. E. Cummings. Persichetti seemed to find in Cummings something of a kindred spirit, with a verbal playfulness and an impish sense of humor that often camouflaged a serious idea. Although many of the composer’s major works from the preceding two decades were rather austere in character, harsh in their musical language, and complex in construction, these settings of seven poems selected from throughout the poet’s career, but all sharing the flower as a metaphor, are irresistibly gracious and delightful, exhibiting the lively exuberance missing from Persichetti’s more “serious” choral settings. Although their musical language reveals a simplicity of texture and line, with largely consonant, tonal harmony, they display no less care and attention to detail than do his more challenging works. On first hearing they may appear to be—though attractive and accessible—simple and perhaps somewhat ordinary; however, closer inspection reveals that virtually nothing about them is ordinary, routine, or accidental. Every articulation, every rhythmic irregularity is carefully calculated. The third song, “Early Flowers,” incorporates in disguised form the same hymn (“Round me falls the night”) used in the second movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 6. Flower Songs towers above most of the other pieces on the program, and its presence here is an important addition to the Persichetti discography. 

John Corigliano’s setting of Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill has been recorded several times before. It is one of the composer’s earliest works, written in 1959-60. More recently, Corigliano fashioned A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, with Fern Hill as the opening work. Yet despite its early position in the composer’s oeuvre, it too is composed with masterful attention to detail. Its sensibility and musical language shamelessly embrace the expressive world of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, though its retrospective evocation of the carefree freedom of youth, a natural complement to the James Agee text set by Barber, is largely free of the latter’s melancholy overlay. Even the orchestration has the same crisp Stravinskian transparency combined with the American’s delicacy and sensitivity. Yet despite its clear derivation, Fern Hill is truly a beautiful and deeply touching work, evoking a sense of mood with remarkable technical mastery and expressive sophistication for a 22-year-old composer. Listeners with more traditional tastes are likely to consider it among his best work. In fact, though I know that many feel otherwise, I have long felt that Corigliano betrayed a great gift when he turned away from the discipline of candid self-revelation, reaching instead for immediate theatrical impact in ways that have at times tended toward the meretricious. Although he has accomplished the latter with great skill and effectiveness, achieving much success in the process, he might have attained a higher, more enduring type of success had he pursued a more personal, introspective path. Fern Hill is a prime example of the “road not taken.”

Though performed beautifully, the three other pieces offer much less musical interest. Copland’s In the Beginning, composed in 1947, is by far the most often heard of his few choral works. Though a pleasant enough piece, it lacks the incisiveness that characterizes his best compositions. Barely recognizable as a work of Copland, it even has moments that call Vaughan Williams and Britten to mind. Written in 1950 for the opening of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University, Lukas Foss’s Behold, I Build an House is a short cantata whose biblical text describes the building of King Solomon’s temple. Scored for chorus with interludes for organ (played ably here by Seung Won Cho), it is not as compelling as other Foss works from this period, such as Psalms, A Parable of Death, and Song of Songs, although their appeal is largely second-hand. Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 occupied him on and off throughout his career; he didn’t complete the work until 1924. The result veers among passages that are alternately striking, banal, awkward, and dull.

All in all, a mixed bag. I trust that readers will know whether or not this disc belongs in their collections. One final point: No texts are included. With a recording comprising sung texts exclusively, this is hard to justify. Yes, I suppose that these literary and biblical sources can be found through other means. But in today’s marketplace, this must be regarded as an incomplete package. By now Naxos has built a reputation for excellent performances and recordings of an exceedingly broad range of repertoire; their packaging now must be brought up to that standard.