AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC ● James Morrow, cond; Univ. of Texas Chamber Singers ● NAXOS 8.559358 (73:15)
PERSICHETTI Mass. SCHUMAN Carols of Death. BOLCOM The Mask. I. FINE The Hour-Glass. FOSS Psalms

This appears to be the second CD Naxos has released that features the University of Texas Chamber Singers, under the sensitive and expert direction of James Morrow, in meticulously performed and recorded selections of American choral music. Those who find the program listed above appealing are not likely to be disappointed, except by the fact that no texts are included. With the exception of one outlier—William Bolcom’s The Mask from 1990—the music included all dates from the years 1949-1960—perhaps the most fertile period for American traditionalist composers.

Vincent Persichetti is represented by his a cappella Mass from 1960, ushering in a decade of concentration by the composer on choral music, both sacred and secular. Although his catalog of sacred music is substantial, I have always found this portion of his output to be remarkably cool and dry—somewhat lacking in spiritual fervor, as it usually expressed musically, although some may disagree. His setting of the Mass is, in many ways, a highly traditional work, its Renaissance heritage reflected in the use of a Gregorian chant, Kyrie Deus Sempiterne, as a cantus firmus that underlies each section, and in its reliance on imitative counterpoint as its chief developmental technique. There are no time signatures, and the irregular, constantly changing phrase-lengths further reinforce the Gregorian connection. Yet the work does not inspire the sense of rapture that the composer’s 16th-century antecedents strove to achieve. The Phrygian implications of the Gregorian theme give the work a generally dark color and the extensive use of quartal harmony contributes to the reserved coolness of mood. Modal consistency is dispelled by considerable chromaticism, especially in the inner voices, making harmonic clarity difficult for even a highly proficient choir to achieve, although Morrow’s Texans accomplish this most effectively, for the most part. A general tone of detached introspection is maintained until the final Agnus Dei, an ardent plea for peace that rises to moments of plaintive passion.

Persichetti’s Mass was included on an all-Persichetti choral disc featuring the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, conducted by the composer’s advocate and friend Tamara Brooks. This recording was released by New World (80316-2) in 1983 (for which I provided the program notes). Those performances were fine, but this recent recording displays more harmonic clarity and a greater sense of expressive vitality.

William Schuman’s Carols of Death, featuring a cappella settings of three Walt Whitman poems, is his best-known and most widely performed choral work. Composed in 1958, the settings comprise “The Last Invocation,” “The Unknown Region,” and “To All, To Each”—poems that have inspired settings by a number of composers. In view of the composer’s statement, expressed late in life, that “I am not and have never been morbid about death. I always think that death is one branch of life,” it is illuminating to observe his sober confrontation with Whitman’s reflections on the subject, from the perspective of the 48-year-old composer.

The three movements are largely slow and somber in character, capturing the profound sense of mystery and awe evoked by Whitman. The first setting is quite grim, and is largely limited to two-voice counterpoint, doubled at the octave, with many open fourths and fifths, which evoke a somewhat archaic flavor. The setting is largely block-like and syllabic, so that the counterpoint is controlled vertically, with limited rhythmic independence of the voices. The first portion of the second section moves quickly, and is decidedly jazzy, displaying some of the intricate rhythmic interplays commonly found in Schuman’s fast music. In fact, there is a phrase or two of that section that would not be out of place in his dramatically different cantata based on Casey at the Bat. This is the most musically interesting setting of the three. The third poem, which begins, “Come lovely and soothing death,” offers some comfort. The largely syllabic settings facilitate the aural comprehension of the text, which was obviously important to the composer.

In 1965 a recording of Carols of Death in a superb performance by the Gregg Smith Singers was released on an Everest LP (3129), never re-issued on compact disc. The rendition provided by the Texans on this recent recording is excellent, although the Smith performance is a little more agile in passages of rhythmic intricacy.

Irving Fine’s settings of six poems by the Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson were composed in 1949 for mixed voices a cappella, making them the earliest pieces on the disc. They are also perhaps the most delightful and clever. Several of the settings pit a small group of soloists against the larger ensemble, in a choral adaptation of the concerto grosso principle. Like most of Fine’s music, these settings are neo-classical in style, applied here to choral music. They are entertaining, sensitive, and, at times, beautiful. The performances here are excellent.

The late Lukas Foss was another exponent of American neo-classicism—at least during the 1940s and 50s; he tended to change compositional styles with the shifts of musical fashion. His pieces from this period comprise some of his most appealing music. Psalms, in three sections, was composed in 1956. Although most effective in its full orchestral version, the work is represented here in an adaptation for two pianos, rendered ably by Dwight Bigler and Alena Gorina.

From my perspective the most striking aspect of this work is the fact that the second—and largest—section bears an unmistakable resemblance to Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, composed in 1965. Foss may have been a bandwagon-jumper, but Bernstein was a shameless “borrower.” In fact, although I tend to avoid accusations of musical appropriation in general, Bernstein engaged in this practice so frequently and so blatantly that many of his works provide the most vivid examples one can find. Further complicating the issue is the fact that in almost every case, Bernstein’s “approximations” are far more colorful, appealing, and successful with listeners than his sources. Foss’s Psalms provide an excellent case in point: Is there any question as to where his piece stands, in relation to the Chichester Psalms? Foss’s psalm settings are effective, but they pale in comparison to Bernstein’s.

As noted earlier, William Bolcom’s The Mask is cut from somewhat different cloth than the other works on the program. Written at the suggestion of the black pianist Natalie Hinderas, this is an ambitious work in six sections, five of which set texts by black poets dealing with hidden identity. The fifth movement is a jazzy piano solo entitled, “Interlude for Natalie.” Bolcom’s settings exemplify his celebrated eclecticism, drawing upon a wide array of styles, while generally remaining toward the more serious, even somber, end of his expressive pallete, despite a foray or two into ragtime. On the whole it is an engaging and often clever cycle, the longest piece on the program.

In summary, the disc is highly recommended to those who are attracted to this program and don’t have other fine recordings of the music.