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Walter Simmons
Fanfare, November 2008

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… © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

David Vernier, June 2007

Even 40 or so years after it was written, Charles Ives’ Psalm 90 still seemed radically, ingeniously cool to a certain familiar bunch of ’60s-era college choir singers—and it still maintains the aura of its composer’s special, inimitable musical sensibility that defies placement in any age or style. The University of Texas Chamber Singers, a first-rate choral ensemble with an impressive resumé that includes world-premieres and prestigious appearances both here and internationally, sings this and the rest of the program with the confidence, technique, and straightforward stylistic awareness required to show the distinct character and particularly engaging musical aspects of each work.

Some of these pieces remain more appealing today than others: John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, for example, a masterful choral conceptualization of Dylan Thomas’ poem that in style and mood recalls what Samuel Barber did with solo voice in his Knoxville: Summer of 1915, wears its nearly 50 years far better than Persichetti’s Flower Songs do their 25. The reason: Corigliano’s wedding of music and poetry seems to be the result of poetry informing musical style, while Persichetti’s E.E. Cummings settings are more about music than text. And although the music is certainly expertly crafted and beautifully scored (there are many very nice choral moments), the angular melodies and often ambiguous harmonic context eventually tires the ear and sets your attention adrift. Both the Foss and Copland works are very much of their time—the Foss typically frothy and overwrought, the Copland skillfully constructed but quaint in its harmonic/melodic ideas and structural technique.

Nevertheless, these are all excellent examples of these composers’ choral writing, showing both the diversity and similarity of styles (particularly regarding rhythm and harmony) in the way they set poetic English texts. And thanks to James Morrow and his fine choir, we get to hear them performed to an exceptionally high standard. There are times when I wished for clearer diction (especially since, most unfortunately, no texts are provided!), slightly more precise word or phrase endings, and more consistent balances between orchestra and voices. But this really is very good singing and playing of works we rarely hear these days—a welcome and highly recommended collection!

Chris Mullins
Opera Today, May 2007

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.

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. 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. Whereas the Ives’s Psalm 90 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.

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

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