Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, January 2011

It occurs to me that some of us may be carrying around a double choral standard. When we happen across new British releases performed by the many university choirs of London, Oxford, and Cambridge, our supposition is that the results will be in line with the highest international choral standards. Is that assumption in place when we encounter America’s collegiate choirs? Or do we anticipate a finished product more in line with the diminished expectations of, say, school alumni and the parents of the singers?

Well, if that double standard does exist, the University of Texas Chamber Singers expose it for the nonsense it is. They sing this repertoire with bright, fresh, supple voices that head straight for the essence of the music. Vincent Persichetti’s Mass is a sleek, prayerful traversal of the liturgy that you’ll be pleased to hear. The Credo with its rapt ‘Et incarnatus est’ and the gently-spun Sanctus are especially compelling. William Schumann’s austere treatment of Walt Whitman’s melancholic sentiments is given a sharply-etched performance that never loses its intensity; and Irving Fine’s tip of the cap to Ben Jonson’s poetry is full of lush harmonies, deft rhythmic touches, and all manner of expressive gestures. Lukas Foss’s jumpy set of Psalms may not be on the same artistic level, but when the biblical passages emerge deep from the hearts of these Texans, they’re pretty irresistible too. The Bolcom set, I confess, leaves me cold. The Harlem Renaissance poems describing Black America’s struggle for authenticity amid the racism that refuses to honor it are remarkable, but the music that expresses them sounds academic and ordinary. (The piano writing is much more interesting than anything the singers get.) Still, we can holler “Bravo!” yet again to Naxos for its worthy and generous programming, excellent sound, and informative notes. I do wish, however, that the Whitman, Jonson, and Harlem Renaissance texts had been supplied.

David Vernier, December 2010

Perhaps this disc should bear the title “American Choral Music, Volume 2”, as this same choir—a world-class group in every respect—released a similarly interesting, well-chosen, and impeccably-sung program of American works (by Ives, Corigliano, Persichetti, Foss, and Copland) for this same label in 2007 (type Q11034 in Search Reviews). Choral music fans should be very grateful to James Morrow and his excellent young singers, not only for the exemplary choral performances but for documenting repertoire that inexplicably remains rarely recorded.

Vincent Persichetti’s Mass could function equally well as a liturgical or concert piece, and its vibrant harmonic character—that somewhat ambiguous yet still tonal melding of modal aspects with added- and subtracted-note triadic structures, sometimes described (in the latter 20th-century) as “modern-classicism”—works very well with the timbres of voices, and after hearing the University of Texas Chamber Singers’ absolutely dead-on rendition, you just want to go out and perform the work yourself. It’s as finely written and attractive a piece of 20th-century sacred music as you’ll hear, and it’s not so difficult as to be beyond the reach of serious amateur choirs.

William Schuman’s Carols of Death, set to texts by Walt Whitman, are in their own way just as affecting and memorable as the Persichetti, even if the technical demands for the singers are that much greater and likewise the challenges for the listener. William Bolcom’s The Mask (the program’s most recently composed work), a song cycle with piano based on poems by African American poets, shows a (mostly) skillful integration of sung texts and music, engages the ear and emotions with its clever references to ragtime and blues—and features one movement of solo piano, which is among the disc’s highlights. In the first movement the piano sometimes seems superfluous or even irrelevant to the choral parts, and the piano’s clamorous bass just sounds excessive (a clue to this very percussive quality may be found in the texts, but these are only available online).

The earliest work on the program, Irving Fine’s The Hour-Glass, sets six poems by 17th-century English poet Ben Jonson. Not only is this by far the most virtuosic group of pieces on the disc, but Fine’s text-setting is the most imaginative and effective and masterful. The soloists here are outstanding. Finally, Lukas Foss’ Psalms are typically easily accessible (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) but also typically just a bit frothy (a word I always find myself using with this composer), but you can’t help but love the Psalm 23, which gently, peacefully closes the disc, the sopranos floating a lovely high-A. The sound, from a church in Austin, Texas, is sensitive and true to the singers and (except for the one above-mentioned instance) to the piano(s). A superb and important addition to the catalog—highly recommended.

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, October 2010

The present disc opens with Vincent Persichetti’s Mass of 1960. Caroline Polk O’Meara’s booklet notes tell us that the work was conceived more for liturgical than for concert use, and first impressions confirm this. But first impressions can deceive too, and this mass is not really the austere, even severe composition that I initially thought. Repeated listening reveals a retrained, even understated work, but not an austere one. Most of the text is set to one note per syllable, and this, combined with the excellent diction of the University of Texas Chamber Singers, ensures that we hear every word. The work is based around a single theme, announced in unison at the outset. Only in the Sanctus does the music feel less focused, less convincing in the way it relates to the text. The Agnus Dei, however, wherein the composer relaxes a little his rule on syllabic word setting, is totally successful, the work closing serenely and touchingly on a bare fifth - not on a unison as the notes erroneously inform us. Getting to know this work has been a rewarding experience, and in spite of one or two difficult corners, it would make a most satisfying project for any competent amateur choir seeking to explore lesser known repertoire.

William Schuman’s almost contemporaneous and discouragingly entitled Carols of Death is more of a challenge, both for the performers and for the listener. The three pieces of which the work is composed are settings of words by Walt Whitman. The first two are largely homophonic, with a fair amount of chromatic writing mixed with extensive use of diatonic dissonance. There is some affecting word painting, particularly in the first song, and the second, which sets some of the same words as did Vaughan Williams in Toward the Unknown Region, opens with the words “Dearest thou now, O Soul” repeatedly passed from one voice to another in a way that presages John Adams. The third is a meditative setting of a single Whitman stanza, the music tender and touching, as the poet launches the invitation “Come lovely and soothing death.” Less immediately attractive that the Persichetti, the work similarly rewards patient attention.

With The Hour-Glass, the composer Irving Fine makes his first appearance in my recorded collection. I’ll be making sure it isn’t the last. Composed in 1949, this is the earliest music on this disc. It is also, I think, the finest. This is perhaps confirmed, consciously or unconsciously, by the cover photo. Setting six short lyrics by Ben Jonson, the composer, in spite of a fairly advanced musical language, avoids any suspicion of anachronism. This is virtuoso choral writing, with even more challenging parts for the six soloists who more than justify their identification in the booklet and above. Indeed, it is the kind of visionary choral writing that requires great faith on the part of the composer. The first piece, for example, demands pinpoint accuracy in fast moving polyphony, without which it simply would not work. Most composers wouldn’t have dared. This superb choir succeeds admirably, thus rewarding the composer’s faith and vision. The words are always clear, too, thanks both to the performers’ skill and to the composer’s remarkable mastery of choral writing. The six songs are very varied, but each is as beautiful as the others. And I choose the word “beautiful” deliberately and without hesitation; anyone with doubts is invited to sample the second song, “Have you seen the white lily grow”, a simple and timeless setting of these lovely words, hugely respectful, matter of fact, even, in its way of presenting them, and very, very easy on the ear...Lukas Foss’s scored for mixed choir, with two vocal soloists, and two pianos. The first movement is calm, with many beautiful moments, and seems a fine response to the calm certitude of the words. The second, by far the longest of the three, features a complex polyphonic texture, including a fugal passage which seems mischievous and playful where sheer, unbuttoned joy is what’s wanted. Calm is restored for the brief meditation which is the third movement...Bolcom is the only composer featured on this disc who is still alive, and his piece [The Mask] is the most recent of the programme. The original idea for the piece came from pianist Natalie Hinderas, and indeed there is an imposing piano part to this cycle of five songs, plus, strangely placed just before the short final song, a solo piano piece entitled “Interlude for Natalie”. The five poems are by twentieth-century African American writers, and, according to the note, deal with “the theme of the mask and hidden identity.”...The notes refer to the “deep diversity” of the composer’s musical language, and indeed, from the second song, which is a cheerful ragtime—though with a serious heart—we pass directly to a piano introduction to the third song which could almost have been written by Messiaen.

Listening to these works without the score it is nonetheless obvious that all the performances from this fine choir, its soloists and two pianists are outstanding. The recording is superb. Altogether, this is an issue not to be missed by those for whom the programme is attractive.

James Manheim, September 2010

With the exception of William Bolcom’s The Mask (1990), all the music on the album was composed between 1949 and 1960, and it’s striking, although each composer had his own individual style, how many ideas were shared. The album’s narrow focus emerges in the end as a virtue, however. The program sticks together, and it includes at least one lost gem, Irving Fine’s The Hour-Glass (1949), to texts by the English poet Ben Jonson. These six short a cappella settings are masterful in their handling of choral register, with solo voices weaving in and out of the choir in a tapestry of complex shadings, all the while keeping closely to the contours of Jonson’s poetry and maintaining the intelligibility of the texts. The only thing that might not recommend this small work to college and university choirs is its considerable difficulty, but this poses no problem for the choristers of the University of Texas Chamber singers under James Morrow. Throughout, they deliver performances on a par with many professional choirs. The common features in the religious works by Persichetti and Foss that begin and end the program lie mostly in the realm of tonal language, with quasi-medieval techniques such as open intervals and temporary tonal centers established by means of unisons. These require great accuracy of intonation not to sound annoying, and the singing here is never less than a pleasure. Bolcom’s set of songs for chorus, soloists, and piano diverges from the rest of the program in its use of vernacular elements, missing from the music of the mid-century. The singers again display maturity beyond what is expected in their handling of the devastating emotional collapse in Heritage (track 10), one of Bolcom’s subtlest uses of the ragtime idiom. Strongly recommended for fans of American choral music of any type...

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, September 2010

I will say at the beginning that the University of Texas Chamber Singers are a very well-balanced, and finely-honed ensemble of 35 mixed choristers (12-7-6-10) who deliver the goods in this repertory of bona-fide Americana. Naxos has captured the sound exceptionally well at the University Presbyterian Church in Austin, and Engineer Tom Handley should be proud of his work, as I know James Morrow is of his singers...William Bolcom’s The Mask is a setting of poems by African American poets...[in] Lukas Foss Psalms...the solo singing of soprano Lisa Sunset Holt and tenor John Len Wiles is excellent. Movements 2 and 3 return us to more typical—and very good—Foss.

The gems remain, however. The most performed and probably best-loved work here is The Hour-Glass by Bostonian Irving Fine, a composer always known for high integrity and unflagging commitment to an American music that was able to absorb all sorts of styles; his choral music is beloved by ensembles world wide, especially the one we have here, a setting of poems by Englishman Ben Jonson, lovingly performed. Vincent Persichetti’s Mass is no concert work but instead a full-fledged liturgical piece that has its origins in the music of the early Renaissance, and is not out of place even today in modern settings.

William Schuman is mostly known as a symphonic composer, and came late to serious music, but that did not stop him from enriching the choral art with many songs and compositions. Carols of Death on Whitman settings takes its name from a single stanza of the seminal When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, the poet’s tribute to Abraham Lincoln, and displays all of the choral carefulness and performance-worthiness that Schuman, as able and as careful a note-spinner as Samuel Barber, could muster. The piece is ascetic to a degree, as is all of Schuman’s music, but warmly evocative and inherently tied to the emotive needs of Whitman’s poems.

All in all a fine effort by a group that I hope to hear more from. Choral singing in the collegiate ranks is alive and well in Austin!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2010

‘American Choral Music’ contains five major works mostly from the second half of the 20th century. Opening with a modern look at the Catholic Mass from Vincent Persichetti, it is a persuasive setting whose short length looks towards the church rather than the concert hall. The five sections are treated in traditional tonal colours and end in peaceful unison. Composed two years earlier, William Schuman used the words of Walt Whitman in Carols of Death, though the music in isolation does not create in my mind the nature of its title. It seems a long time ago that William Bolcom’s name became known in the wider world having joined in the short-lived vogue for piano Rags, and it is often to jazzy rhythms that he sets the words of Afro-American poets. With a piano accompaniment, the title comes from words in the first song, we wear the mask that grins and lies. Using texts by the seventeenth-century poet, Ben Jonson, Irving Fine’s The Hour-Glass was completed in 1949. More adventurous both in harmonies and the use of voices as any other on the disc, I hope the release will bring the composer to the attention of choral groups. Yet it is the Lukas Foss score of 1956, Psalms, that I find the most interesting. A hint of British liturgical music and an input of Stravinsky in Russian mode, it has a weighty accompaniment for two pianos. Ranked among America’s best college choirs, the University of Texas Chamber Singers is a very accomplished group who seem unfazed by the music’s complexities.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group