BARBER: Prayers of Kierkegaard. Die Natali. CRESTON: Corinthians: XIII. TOCH: Symphony No. 5, (“Jephta”).

by Walter Simmons



BARBER: Prayers of Kierkegaard. Die Natali. CRESTON: Corinthians: XIII. TOCH:Symphony No. 5, (“Jephta”). Jorge Mester. and Robert Whitney conducting the Louisville Orchestra; with Gloria Capone, soprano; the Chorus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. ALBANY TROY021-2 [AAD]; 69:47.

This latest CD reissue of items from the Louisville backlist is of great merit: Not only does it return to the catalog first and only recordings of four works, but two of them are among the finest creations of their respective composers.

Prayers of Kierkegaard is Samuel Barber’s 1954 setting of excerpts from the intense writings of the Danish religious philosopher. This is a work of unsurpassed beauty in the composer’s canon, with passages of warm lyricism, hushed, awe-filled reverence, and some moments of drama and excitement. There is a lovely soprano solo, the choral writing is gorgeous, and the sequence of sections is masterfully shaped for maximum effect. No one who enjoys the music of Barber should remain unaware of this work — one of the three or four most consistently inspired and superbly realized compositions from the pen of someone with many artistic successes to his credit. Filmmusic buffs may notice remarkable similarities betweenPrayers of Kierkegaard and portions of Miklos Rozsa’s score for Quo Vadis, written three or four years earlier, but this takes nothing from the Barber, which is, obviously, a much more subtle, finely wrought composition.

Die Natali, a set of “Chorale Preludes for Christmas,” was written in 1960. Not only is it a work of considerable compositional virtuosity, combining eight familiar Christmas carols with great ingenuity, but it is quite an orchestral tour de force as well, featuring some challenging instrumental writing. Yet, except for one passage near the end based on original thematic material, the work is surprisingly dry and impersonal, especially in view of the composer’s norm with regard to emotional openness. Nevertheless, Die Natali is an entertaining showpiece and if it is a little cool in tone, at least it avoids the mawkish sentimentality that usually emerges in this sort of effort.

Paul Creston, one of America’s most prominent composers forty years ago, lived to see most of his music plummet into obscurity with the advent of the serialist hegemony during the late 1950s. Although Creston’s major symphonic scores, championed by the likes of Toscanini, Monteux, Rodzinski, ct al., define one of the most individualistic and personally distinctive styles of his generation, he was known during his final decades (he died in 1985) primarily for pieces for unusual instruments, such as marimba, saxophone, and trombone, as well as for a few pops-concert curtain-raisers. True, the composer himself was partly responsible for such misplaced emphasis, reinforcing this type-casting through the commissions he accepted, while directing much of his energy toward the dissemination of some rather dogmatic ideas regarding rhythmic notation. However, Creston continued to produce first-rate music into the 1960s, and the orchestral poem Corinthians: XIII is one. of the finest examples.

Written in 1962, Corinthians: XIII is an expression of the composer’s emotional reaction to the famous chapter from the New Testament. The work is sectional in form, following one of Creston’s favorite structural devices: A literary, artistic, or philosophical concept is divided into several component sub-concepts; each is then given musical expression, unified by a single theme that is transformed into various guises that reflect the different aspects of the extra-musical concept. In the case of Corinthians: XIII, the concept is love, and the work’s three sections deal with love between mother and child, between man and woman, and between man and mankind. As is true of Creston’s best works, Corinthians: XIII displays a remarkable gift for realizing these extra-musical concepts with music that sounds thoroughly natural and spontaneous, yet is brilliantly logical and coherent in its development of the unifying thematic idea.

Though its style is rooted in the richly expanded triadic harmony and sumptuous textures of Debussy and Ravel, with nothing to offend the most conservative listener, the work is unmistakably Creston from the first two chords. The music is deeply felt and sincere: The first section touchingly evokes a tender maternal ardor; the second section becomes more lively, with some characteristic rhythmic felicities, building up to an appropriately heated climax, which leads directly into the final section, a solemn, reverent hymn in which the work’s unifying theme is transformed into the Gregorian melody “Salve Regina,” cloaked in diaphanous, richly harmonized orchestral dress.

Of evident craftsmanship and musicality but of less overt appeal is Ernst Toch’s Symphony No. 5, a “rhapsodic poem” inspired by the Biblical story of Jephta and composed in 1963 — one of the composer’s last major works. Toch was born in Vienna in 1887 but lived in California from 1936 until his death in 1964, and his large and varied output reflects a broad cultural base. “Jephta” reveals a strongly Viennese flavor in its fluent, Berg-like expressionism, flexible enough to include moments of simple diatonicism. But, though colorfully orchestrated and sensitively shaped, with a predominantly romantic/dramatic character, the work exhibits a degree of harmonic astringency and structural complexity that makes it somewhat less accessible than the other works on this altogether worthwhile disc.

All these performances are thoroughly adequate to convey the quality of the music, while leaving plenty of room for improvement with regard to both execution and interpretation. The sound quality of the CD transfers is vastly superior to the original LP releases.