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Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, October 2011

The Nashville Symphony continues to agreeably surprise me. Slatkin has improved them to the point where they have reached at least the second tier of American Orchestras. They stand very near the head of that line. Although they better every other recording of Ford’s Theater, the real dud on the program and unfortunately the longest piece, not even they can save Ernst Bacon’s musical bacon. The orchestra in the Ives manages the composer’s characteristically thick textures, but you really do need the text in front of you to understand the chorus. You can’t blame them, because Ives doesn’t give them much of a chance. The Persichetti receives perhaps its first recording, and the account’s a solid one. Speaker Barry Scott has a basso that sounds like the old man of the mountains. The Gould gets its fair chance, and thus its strengths and weaknesses stand exposed. Since I have nothing to which to compare the McKay, I can say only that the performance moved me. The Turok and the Copland come off as Slatkin’s and the orchestra’s best. I still think Sandburg the best narrator, the one who best understands how poetry works (the thrill he can send up your spinal column on the word “disenthrall” continues to amaze me). However, Barry Scott makes some nice vocal music himself, closer to James Earl Jones’s reading. However, Slatkin leaves Kostelanetz in the dust. He beautifully shapes the opening in one long arc and avoids over-inflation in the finale. Compared to him, Kostelanetz stutters and nudges you in the ribs. Overall, I consider Slatkin’s account, along with Kostelanetz’s, one of the two best. If only Sandburg could have recorded with Slatkin.

A special word about Sharon Mabry and the trio in Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight. The performers do a fine, although not life-altering job I think possible with the Harris. Nevertheless, this is one complicated work, and it demands laser-like concentration and the ability to know where you are at any point in the work. Otherwise, the cantata can come off as a musical blob. The performers understand the piece and bring the listener with them.

Kudos to Slatkin for the inventive programming and to Naxos for once again taking a chance on relatively unknown repertoire.

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, March 2010

The longest piece of music is Ernst Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre, a 30-minute suite of 12 short pieces originally conceived as incidental music to a play by Paul Horgan called Death, Mr. President. Evidently the play was not a success. Each of the pieces is suggested by an incident that took place during the week preceding Lincoln’s assassination…One movement, entitled “The River Queen,” has some lovely moments; and the music is pleasant… Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend… is a 17-minute symphonic poem in several sections of contrasting moods and dynamics. Through it are interwoven various American songs, most notably The Old Grey Mare and The Battle Hymn of the Republic…Roy Harris’s…1953 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight… is actually one of the more interesting pieces on this program, with some arresting moments…Barry Scott offers a fine reading of Lincoln’s words, and Leonard Slatkin, one of today’s most sympathetic and effective advocates for the American symphonic school, leads a sensitive performance [of Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address]…Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait… still moves me deeply—the text, the music, the whole thing. Like the Gould work, this piece weaves American folk tunes into the symphonic fabric. But it works because Copland does not twist them out of their natural settings; the context in which he places them is in keeping with their characters. Again Barry Scott provides an excellent rendition of the text, and Slatkin leads one of the most well-shaped performances of the work I have ever heard. He and the Nashville Symphony are excellent throughout these recordings, but this is most noticeable to me in the two works I know best. I am not privy to the machinations behind the scenes concerning Slatkin, the Nashville Symphony, and Naxos, but while the other record companies ignore the American symphonic repertoire, Naxos is bringing this music much-deserved attention. Like Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, Slatkin and Nashville are a winning combination.

Christian Grey, July 2009

Abraham Lincoln looms monolithically large in America’s cultural lexicon. Abraham Lincoln Portraits, a double disc set on the Naxos imprint, collects a number of the musical responses to Lincoln’s legacy. The biggies are here; the Nashville Symphony and Chorus make a terrific gale of sound on the oddly eloquent cacophony of Charles Ives’s Lincoln the Great Commoner. Narrator Barry Scott is suitably sepulchral, poised amid the orchestral swells of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.

Lesser known works are also featured. Scott again is an able speaker on Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address. The Persichetti is no match for the Copland in terms of overt appeal, but it features stirring interludes dense with flurried counterpoint and artfully crafted extended tonal harmonies. Using excerpts from Lincoln’s second inaugural address as its text, it contains a considerably poignant narrative. Ironically, Lincoln’s words also proved to be a controversial part of the work’s performance history. Written in 1973, A Lincoln Address was commissioned for Nixon’s second inaugural. The event’s planning committee ultimately rejected the work, supposedly for excerpting remarks by Lincoln that could be interpreted as bolstering the antiwar movement’s protests over US actions in Vietnam!
Written in 1941, Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend is an excellent example of the midcentury Americana style, interweaving Civil War-era tunes into an effusive, flashily orchestrated medley. Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, by Roy Harris, is a supple, subtle chamber work that receives a lustrous, detailed reading from mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry, violinist Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, cellist Anthony LaMarchina, and pianist Roger Wiesmeyer. It combines the muscularity of Harris’s symphonic music with a more intimate, Impressionist harmonic palette.

Ernst Bacon’s serviceable, quasi-programmatic Ford’s Theatre—A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865 is a group of seven, cinema-worthy vignettes dealing with the circumstances surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. George Frederick McKay’s To a Liberator: a Lincoln Tribute smacks of scene-setting as well. More meditative in tone, it includes lush choral writing. But of the rarities uncovered on this well-curated compilation, most impressive is Paul Turok’s Variations on an American Song; Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty. Many know Turok from his long career as a writer about music for a host of publications. While conservative in style, Variations is a charming piece in a pandiatonic style, well-scored and cleverly paced. Idiomatic in its demands, the work is a fine showcase for professionals; but it would brighten up many a college or community orchestra concert as well.

Nashville and Naxos have once again proved fine advocates for American classical music, providing a thematically unified, but eminently entertaining, sampling of Twentieth Century repertoire.

Gil French
American Record Guide, July 2009

There can be several motives for buying this album: patriotism, Lincoln’s bicentennial, President Obama’s fascination with Lincoln, a collection of rarely heard works. But for me the judgement boils down to whether the works themselves and the performances are rewarding.

Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865 by Ernst Bacon (1898–1990) is a 12-movement suite in 30 minutes based on music written for a play. (Bacon founded the Carmel Bach Festival in 1935 and was dean of Syracuse University’s music school for almost two decades.) The play was a failure; but the music, from the Howard Hanson-Morton Gould school, is an utterly inventive, superbly orchestrated series of romances, laments, marches, etc., including a terrific ‘Telegraph Fugue’ and a go at ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ that surpasses even Gould’s famous American Salute. Slatkin, the NSO, and the engineers are simply at their very finest here.

A close second is music critic and composer Paul Turok’s Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty. What it really works over is the Irish tune ‘Rosin the Bow’, which Lincoln used as his 1859 campaign song (with new words). In nine minutes the NSO really captures its vital rhythms, calm scenic overview, and large-sized nobility.

Also rewarding is George Frederick McKay’s 11-minute symphonic poem To a Liberator, which also includes a wordless chorus at one point. McKay was the first composition graduate of the Eastman School of Music and is renowned in Seattle, where he spent his professional life. It comes from the same sound world as Bacon and gets plenty of energy and forward thrust from Slatkin.

In Copland’s Lincoln Portrait…Copland’s text is Lincoln at his clearest and most eloquent; I must admit that here the album’s editor has done a superb job of timing Scott’s pronouncements with Slatkin’s brilliantly incisive handling of Copland’s powerful, accented chords. Even I, devoid of patriotism after eight years of Bush, really did get swept up, especially given the gripping engineering…Texts are supplied for the Persichetti, Harris, and Copland; and the liner notes are excellent.

James Manheim, June 2009

Anyone thinking that the eight Abraham Lincoln pieces offered here exhausted the store of musical representations of the 16th U.S. president will be quickly disabused; they represent a selection from about 90 pieces that were considered. For some composers, the Nashville Symphony and conductor Leonard Slatkin would have had a choice of multiple Lincoln pieces. Nevertheless, the program as it stands now is an attractive one, with two well-known pieces as bookends to a host of unknowns, and several works that are effectively played off against each other. In addition to Copland’s familiar Lincoln Portrait, for example, there’s Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, setting the Second Inaugural Address. The work was written for Nixon’s corresponding inaugural, but Nixon’s agents demanded the excision of certain passages of the text that might have been construed as antiwar (which tells you something!). The work was eventually withdrawn, and other orchestras rushed to perform it in its original version. Nashville actor Barri Scott is an effectively somber narrator here and in the Copland. Other highlights include Harris’ chamber setting of the Vachel Lindsay poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” and Ernst Bacon’s “Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865.” This work was originally written as music to accompany a play, but some of the very specific scenes involved come through in independent performance. There are more resonant performances of the Copland around, but this disc will have relevance for any number of collections. Texts, in English only, are included.

Robert Moon
Audiophile Audition, May 2009

This two-disc issue contains a variety of tributes to Abraham Lincoln by American composers that celebrates the bi-centennial of the great statesman’s birth. Some set Lincoln’s words to music—instrumental, vocal and choral. Others set poets’ words about Lincoln to music and “the purely instrumental selections draw their inspiration from events in Lincoln’s life.” Ives’ brief choral work, Lincoln, The Great Commoner uses brief excerpts of well known American hymns entangled in a complex orchestral tapestry. Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address was commissioned for Richard Nixon’s 1973 inauguration and then withdrawn because the composer wouldn’t excise parts of Lincoln’s second inaugural address that might have ruffled some about America’s participation in the Vietnam War. It’s a reverential but uninspired work with a quiet, moving conclusion.

Roy Harris’ Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, A Cantata for Lamentation for mezzo-soprano and piano trio is set to a poem by Vachel Lindsay. It’s a touching tribute to Lincoln’s hopes and fears that’s relevant today as the world searches for the peace Lincoln so fervently held close to his heart. This work is one of the best in the set. Ernst Bacon’s half-hour orchestral suite, Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week 1865 comprises twelve miniatures that memorialize the events of the week that Lincoln was assassinated. Highlights include a jazzy march, “Passing Troops,” a leisurely ode to life on a riverboat, “The River Queen,” and a harrowing and poignant depiction of the day Lincoln was assassinated, “Good Friday, 1865.” It’s effective program music, very well performed and recorded.

McKay’s To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute) of 1940 is homage to the democratic ideals embodied by Lincoln. The lovely choral movement stands out, but the remainder is unmemorable. Paul Turok’s Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty (1964) is an ingeniously scored set of theme and variations based on seven different notes that “replicates some of the patriotic swagger of Lincoln’s 1859 presidential campaign. Its rollicking vitality is convincing.

The final work, the classic and well known Copland score, Lincoln Portrait, here receives a facile, spirited and monumental performance. Narrator Barry Scott—founder and producing artistic director of the American Negro Playwright Theatre—delivers Lincoln’s memorable words with a dramatic urgency and conviction that is overwhelming. This American masterpiece is given the kind of performance that brought tears to my eyes and is worth the price of the disc alone.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, May 2009

This set is a tribute, in his bicentennial year, to America’s sixteenth president. The works have been chosen by Leonard Slatkin and Naxos and, varied as it is, the set contains only a small fraction of the musical compositions written about the Great Emancipator. As the program notes point out, the eight works here describe Lincoln the man, his life, his times and perhaps most important, the feelings evoked by Lincoln in the composers and so many others. Since the works in the set were written over most of the first three-quarters of the 20th century, looking at them in chronological context can perhaps tell us most about how Lincoln has appeared to his fellow Americans, both musically and historically.

Ives’ Lincoln, the Great Commoner was originally written as a song, either right before or right after World War I. The choral version is mostly a unison work and quotes fewer folk tunes than we might expect from Ives, but when it develops into dense tone clusters, accompanied by some of the composer’s best orchestration, it becomes an extremely impressive picture of Lincoln’s idealism. The progression to the finale is inexorable and it would not be too much to say that this is the composer’s premier contribution to the choral repertoire, short as it is.

More than forty years later we have a work of Paul Turok, a well-known critic and broadcaster in New York City. He is also known as a composer and has long been interested in American history. His variations area based on a folk tune that was used in Lincoln’s campaign for President in 1860. It is a very simple tune and can be played solely on the white notes of the piano. I found Turok’s piece very enjoyable and an able handling of variation form, though not especially Lincolnesque. Written yet another ten years later and very different in intensity is Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, which sets the speech Lincoln gave at his Second Inauguration. This is one of the most moving works in the set-the music accompanying the words “…and the war came…” and “…both read the same Bible…” plumbing great depths of feeling. After a central interlude there is a very spare accompaniment to “…with malice towards none…” and a subdued statement of the opening material before the narrator reiterates the word “Peace”. A wonderful work that should be better known.

Four of the eight works in this set date from the years 1939–1942 when the approach of World War II and its coming to America generated many statements of the nation’s values in this terrible time. McKay’s To a Liberator was written in the light of the events of the late thirties and is a compendium of the feelings evoked in the composer by Lincoln. The first section is actually entitled Evocation, and like the beginning of Copland’s work, portrays the Lincoln of destiny, albeit in a more personal manner. A wordless chorus is added for the second section which deals with the common man’s faith in democracy. This is an excellent variation of the opening material, making it almost sound like folk or gospel music. The third section, a March, and the fourth, titled Declaration, continue the musical and philosophical threads of what has come before. The Epilogue returns to the opening material, but very quietly and in a ruminative vein, not at all what one would expect. I think it safe to say that this is the most substantial of McKay’s works to appear since Naxos started recording them.

Throughout his career Morton Gould moved back and forth between serious works and more populist ones, almost like an American Arthur Benjamin. Lincoln Legend definitely lives up to the seriousness of the times (1941). Gould takes a different approach towards his subject than McKay, fashioning various patriotic and folk material associated with the Civil War into a symphonic poem that while portraying that past conflict ends with questioning emotions about the conflict to come. Gould’s always piquant orchestration and sense of construction use the well-known material to produce a wide range of emotions—a work that is truly more than the sum of the parts.

Yet another approach is taken by Ernst Bacon in Ford’s Theatre: a Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865. This work was originally incidental music to a play about Lincoln by Paul Horgan, which Bacon later orchestrated. In its twelve numbers it covers a very wide range of emotions, from pathos to cynicism to the final tragedy. It has always been one of Bacon’s best-known works and is very welcome here as its last incarnation was a Desto LP from about fifty years ago that was unlistenable even then. It is a wonderful introduction to an unjustly neglected composer. Last of the four 1939–1942 pieces is Copland’s ubiquitous Lincoln Portrait, a work so well-known as to need no description.

The Roy Harris work in this set falls into a separate category from the others for a variety of reasons. It requires a piano trio accompaniment as opposed an orchestral one and a vocal soloist rather than a chorus. It was not written to strengthen the nation’s resolve or meditate on the greatness of Lincoln as were many of the others. Rather it is an angry work, asking what Lincoln would have thought of the continuance of war and prejudice almost a century after he had died to end such things. What is more, it cannot be looked at in comparison to the other works in the set as it can in the context of all the pieces the composer wrote throughout his career dealing with Lincoln. In style it is an eerie work, with the ghost of the President walking back and forth pondering the continuance of evil in the world. Harris’s use of open chords and a recurring descending passage for the soloist add both the atmosphere and the musical momentum. Especially impressive is the setting of the last paragraph the poem which increases the sense of lamentation.

Aside from the fine quality of the music, the most notable feature of this set is the fine quality of the sound in the new Laura Turner Hall, the new home of the Nashville Symphony. The hall has a wonderful acoustic and the Naxos engineers make the most of it. The orchestra itself mostly lives up to their new surroundings, although there is some cluttered playing in the Persichetti and the Gould. The chorus does well with the difficult Ives piece. As for the instrumental soloists in the Harris work they definitely understand Harris, although one could ask for a little more verve in their playing. The mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry is excellent at getting to the drama of text and music, especially in her wordless singing in the first three minutes of the Harris work. My one complaint is with the narrator Barry Scott, who appears in the Persichetti and Copland works. In the former he is totally convincing, without a shred of false emotion. But in the Lincoln Portrait he does what so many others have done: he acts. Copland himself cautioned “against undue emphasis in the delivery of Lincoln’s words …they [need] no added ‘emotion’…” As for Leonard Slatkin he not only delivers forceful leadership of each work, but shows himself capable of treating each one completely on its own terms.

Since only the Copland and Ives works are presently available on CD, this set is a must for collectors of American music, aside from patriotic associations. The Harris and the Persichetti works alone make it an essential purchase.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, April 2009

The present collection cuts a swathe through a small proportion of America's musical Lincolniana.

Ives’ Lincoln the Great Commoner in a grand hooley of a piece—a real choral phantasmagoria. Choir and orchestra heave with eruptive energy. The shrapnel of hymns and songs of the common man are scattered around the battlefield. This music is cut from the same gunny and silk as the wild Fourth Symphony.

Barry Scott is the orator in the Copland and Persichetti works. In each his style is modest—no calling down of Olivier's ‘fires of heaven’. The Persichetti is sombre and noble without Copland's italicised rhetoric. It is at times suggestive of brutality and regret…With the Roy Harris piece we leave the orchestra and move to a chamber ensemble and singer. This is a work of gentle inclines. The sigh and rise of the string writing parallels that of the Third and Seventh symphonies. It can be a little difficult to hear the words which pass with a confident slow swing and a sing-song manner. The vocal line sometimes deploys melisma. On one occasion the piano part is protestingly angular and rhetorical.

We hear little about the composer Ernest Bacon yet he had his Enchanted Island recorded by CRI in LP days (LOU 545-11). His Ford’s Theatre is an approachable piece made up of many short vignettes. They are variously: sampler-sentimental, imposing, Whitman-like (the dying soldier), bustlingly confident in the manner of Herrmann’s The Magnificent Ambersons, revelling in pomp and circumstance in the Johnny comes marching home again movement and articulating a mounting agony and tension. It is very approachable in its raindrop evocative moments. Bacon is worth further exploration.

The Gould is longer-winded and alternates Harris sincerity with cheap-jack tawdry. Jaunty-gawky riverboat glitter jostles with eerie fanfares. The piece was inspired by reading Carl Sandburg's ‘Abe Lincoln—The Prairie Years, The War Years’.

McKay is a composer last represented by a CD of his Epoch Symphony—also on Naxos [8.559330]. His Tribute to a Liberator is music threaded through with optimism and bloom. The music allocated to the chorus is ethereal and smacks of Herbert Howell. The epilogue is very much in the manner of a fading Delian sigh. This five movement piece is said to have been the composer’s celebration of democracy and protest against the European dictators of the 1930s. It was premiered on 15 March 1940 by Fabien Sevitzky and the Indianapolis Symphony.

The Paul Turok work dates from the early 1960s and was premiered in by the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra. It is a lighter piece—ingenuous and very much to the point perhaps a little in the manner of the Moeran Sinfonietta.

The Copland contribution is the daddy of them all. It is the most successful presidential portrait in music. It proclaims heightened grandeur and declares that great things are afoot. The premiere was given some six months after Pearl Harbor on 16 May 1942 with William Adams as orator. A well-turned performance is given; not at all 'luvvy'. The orchestral contribution is vivid and is certainly not short on nobility.

This is a stimulating anthology. I hope that we will hear more Lincoln-inspired music in future collections including the eccentric Harris Tenth Symphony.

John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, April 2009

The extensive and helpful notes to these discs by Jane Vial Jaffe explain that their contents were selected from about ninety works written in honour of Abraham Lincoln. This is a formidable total showing the crucial and continuing importance of Lincoln as an inspirational statesman for Americans and American composers. The eight pieces eventually selected are varied in character and by no means give the impression of being written more from a sense of duty than from real admiration.

The shortest work here is also the earliest, and probably the best. Ives’ “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” is a choral setting of a poem by Edwin Markham…The performance here carries considerable conviction, a prerequisite for this piece. Although I have been unable to compare it with a score the impression of both fecundity of ideas and of struggle with them is wholly characteristic of Ives. I have returned to this piece several times, and for me at least the set would be worth having for it alone.

The other clear masterpiece here is Copland’s well known “Lincoln Portrait”…The other works which appealed especially to me were Roy Harris’s “Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight” and Ernst Bacon’s “Ford’s Theatre”. The former is a haunting setting for mezzo-soprano and piano trio of a poem by Vachel Lindsay, and the latter a varied and enjoyable Suite drawn from incidental music to the play “Death, Mr President” by Paul Horgan…Overall this is an interesting and imaginatively presented collection, well played and well recorded. It can be safely recommended to anyone with an interest in American music, or a justifiable admiration for the figure who inspired all of these pieces.

Karl Miller
Classical Net, April 2009

Ives’ essay provides a fitting introduction to this two-disc set. Amid the deluge of dissonance there is great dignity in the music. Persichetti’s setting of words of Lincoln is perhaps best known for extra-musical reasons. His setting of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address was written for, but not performed for, Nixon’s 1973 inauguration. Some thought that Lincoln’s words were problematic when considered within the context of the then all too present Vietnam War. The music is primarily a reworking of materials from the composer’s Seventh Symphony. The piece has none of the dramatic sweep of the Copland. The text provides the form, more so than any creative impetus of the music. The music merely seems to comment on the text as opposed to there being a true merging of text and music.

Of all of the works on this disc, Harris’ “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” seems to capture the tragic spirit of Lincoln best. It is a setting for soprano, piano and strings of the words of Vachel Lindsay. There is a loneliness and sadness about the music which, to the ears of this listener, reflects the melancholy of this great, but tragic figure in our history. There is no flag waving, just heartfelt expression. This is its second recording, with an earlier release on the long gone MGM classical label.

While I often find moments of great interest in the work of Bacon, to my ears the music often fails to convey a cogent, musical rhetoric. It seems to be a collection of miniatures which do not contribute to an organic whole. This is not to say there is not much to admire in the music, for indeed there is a great deal of fine expression.

The music of Morton Gould and George Frederick McKay are two very good reasons to purchase this set. If Roy Harris captured the ruggedness of the American spirit, it was Morton Gould who captured the simple beauty and optimism of this country and branded it with a level of musical sophistication worthy of presentation in any concert hall. While his “Lincoln Legend” might not be his most brilliant essay, it is wonderful music, skillfully written and magnificently orchestrated. For those of you who had only the poor sounding Toscanini performance, this will be a most welcome addition to your collection.

Slatkin does us another great service by presenting us with the all too brief “To a Liberator.” The music of McKay never fails to impress. It is marked by inspired melodic invention and solid craftsmanship.

The campaign song “Lincoln and Liberty,” fashioned from the tune “Rosin the Bow,” serves as the basis for Paul Turok’s Coplandesque set of variations. It is a charming, beautiful work.

It was probably thought that no program of music about Lincoln could be complete without Copland’s essay on the words of Lincoln. With so many fine recordings of this work it seems like a bit of overkill to have yet another recording, even if it does feature the fine reading of narrator Barry Scott.

Sharon Mabry, Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, Anthony LaMarchina and Roger Wiesmeyer do a fine job with the Harris. Slatkin’s readings are respectful and perhaps a bit subdued. The playing of the Nashville Symphony sounds a bit tentative at times. Barry Scott’s narration of both the Persichetti and Copland is respectful and well-considered. He conveys the words of Lincoln with great nobility. The recorded sound is excellent.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, April 2009

Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre draws on folklore, is colorful music and easy listening. Copland’s familiar Lincoln Portrait receives a rousing performance. Gould’s Lincoln Legend is a sensitive, sometimes brilliant but over-long work. Harris’s setting of Vachel Lindsay’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight is for voice and piano trio. It is one of Harris’s most successful pieces of chamber music, expertly performed by mezzo Sharon Mabry, the orchestra’s principals (Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, Anthony LaMarchina) and pianist Roger Wiesmeyer. Ives’s choral setting of Edwin Markham’s Lincoln, the Great Commoner is short, typical in its use of extensive quotations and enjoyable. McKay’s To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute), with its lovely choral movement, is one of his best pieces. Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, like all his music, is beautifully crafted but lacks individual profile. Nonetheless, it is impressive in its straightforward clarity (the fine narrator is Barry Scott, also in the Copland). Turok’s Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty, variations on a Lincoln campaign song, could not have received a better played and interpreted performance. Ordinarily, TC refrains from commenting further, but the work is beautifully orchestrated.

Frederick L. McKay
MusicWeb International, April 2009

I attended the live performance of many of the works on the album given by L. Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony and Chorus last summer, and the large audience enjoyed and appreciated all the music tremendously. This album is very important in its scope and generosity in providing a professionally recorded exposition of composers not afforded this opportunity due to the star system that has developed in serious music over many decades. George Frederick McKay (my father) composed “To A Liberator” well before Copland penned his Lincoln work, but in the past I have heard some naïve remarks by critics that McKay was influenced by Copland; actually he has been quoted in conjunction with being professor of music at the University of Washington, Seattle as being happy that Copland was receiving recognition for advancing American culture musically. This is somewhat typical in terms of misinformation bred by a lack of knowledge of what really was going on in the various regions of America musically during the 20th Century. McKay also has other works relating to Lincoln, including one of 30 minute length that includes orchestral scoring and very wonderful lyrics portraying a humanistic and emotionally alive spirit, beyond the current inventory that we have recently been privileged to hear. His first impulse was to create works relating to his own mellow West Coast environment and heritage, without involving musical trends or personalities 2000 miles distant. I don't believe it has been mentioned, by the way, that the Slatkin recording of “To A Liberator” is a world premiere item. This news may have been lost in a fog of redundant conventional wisdom.

Richard Freed, April 2009

The tragic, beloved figure of Abraham Lincoln has inspired a great deal of music, from his time to our own; the one well-known piece is Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which concludes this program, following seven other 20th-century American works that will be “discoveries” to most listeners, and in the event pretty happy ones.

The Lincoln Legend composed by Morton Gould in 1941 (and introduced by Toscanini the following year) is built on songs known to Lincoln and associated with him, treated in the colorful and inventive style Gould had already perfected by age 27. Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty, by Paul Turok (the only living composer represented here), focuses on a single tune (not among those used by Gould), with similar resourcefulness and appeal.

Naxos has effectively revived the music of George Frederick McKay on several earlier CDs [See his biography page]; his five-part “Lincoln Tribute” called To a Liberator (with chorus) definitely holds its own here, powered by a confidence and directness well suited to its subject.

There are twelve brief sections to Ernst Bacon’s evocative Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week 1865. Roy Harris’s solo cantata of Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” the most poignant of Harris’s several Lincoln works, is chamber music (sung by Sharon Mabry with a piano trio from the orchestra), aptly positioned as an intimate prelude to the Bacon work. Ives’s Lincoln, the Great Commoner, another choral piece (part of Edwin Markham’s poem), is an effective prelude to the entire program.

A Lincoln Address, commissioned from Vincent Persichetti for the concert on the eve of President Nixon’s second inauguration, was scrapped because of its possibly “inflammatory” text, but was taken up in other venues within a week of that event. That work and the familiar Copland are the weak links in this program, not for any musical failure but because the chosen narrator’s oratorical style simply seems out of character for Lincoln’s sober directness in addressing the sorrows and hopes of a self-questioning nation.

But the Lincoln Portrait is by now one of those things we can hardly avoid duplicating, and if that track is passed over this is still a valuable collection. Leonard Slatkin obviously believes in all this music and once again has the Nashville SO playing its collective heart out to acquaint us on the most persuasive level with music we might otherwise have missed, while the robust, well-balanced sound puts everything in the most flattering light.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

A momentous addition to the catalogue of American music, the release rather creeping onto the international market when it should be receiving a massive fanfare of trumpets. The two discs contain eight works, all inspired by Abraham Lincoln and now gathered together to mark the bicentennial of his birth. The first disc open’s with a choral work by Charles Ives, Lincoln, the Great Commoner, using Edwin Markham’s poem extoling Lincoln’s idealism. Vincent Persichetti’s musical backdrop to the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—here ideally spoken by Barry Scott—is a sombre comment that only occasionally underlines words with sounds of impact. The most strange track comes from Roy Harris’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, an eerie poem by Vachel Lindsay, sung by a mezzo-soprano with a piano trio accompaniment. Ernst Bacon, conductor, painter and folk-song collector, had provided incidental music for Paul Horgan’s play, Death, Mr. President, but when it proved a flop, Bacon extracted twelve orchestral cameos to create Ford’s Theatre: A few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865. Thosemusical pictures lead up to Lincoln’s assassination in the theatre. Completed in 1941 when war time emotions ran high, Morton Gould’s Lincoln’s Legend include snatches of well-known American tunes that fragment the score to the point that it lacks cohesion and ends up as pastiche. Still Gould was a master of multicolored orchestral scoring which here proves rather irresistible. George McKay’s To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute) comes from the same era, but set out to achieve something far more serious in pointing to the power of democracy. Paul Turok is best known as a record critic, having founded the publication Turok’s Choice, but has also been active as a composer. His Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty, is a most interesting exercise in the art of ‘variations’. The disc ends with Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, one of his best known scores, two orchestral sections picturing Lincoln preceding a musical setting of a spoken text using Lincoln’s profound words. The performances are proof of Leonard Slatkin’s meticulous preparation of the Nashville Symphony, the orchestra responding to the momentous nature of the release with superb playing. The sound quality shares this sense of occasion.

Peter Joelson, March 2009

Leonard Slatkin and his Nashville forces contribute these performances for the bicentennial celebrations of the birth of Abraham Lincoln in 1809. The pieces here were selected from a list of ninety inspired by the writings, actions and principles of this sixteenth President, and two of the eight use settings of his words.

Most well-known is Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait which was commissioned by André Kostelanetz just after America’s entry into the Second World War, and is very much a product of its time with its urging of patriotism. Copland used words from Lincoln’s address to Congress in 1862. Abram Bergen in “Intimate Memories of Lincoln” wrote: “But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.”

The work’s music evokes nostalgia for rural America and has that feeling of wide, open spaces so characteristic of Copland’s music. The narrator, Barry Scott, has rich stentorian tones quite unlike one would imagine Lincoln’s voice, which contrast with Copland’s clever use of folksongs, including “Springfield Mountain” and “Camptown Races”.

Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, based on Lincoln’s second inaugural address, was commissioned in 1973 by the Presidential Inaugural Committee after a recommendation from Eugene Ormandy. There followed difficulties with the chosen texts due to the war in Vietnam, and after some cuts were made and more requested, Persichetti was informed that the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charlton Heston would not be performing the piece after all. This created huge publicity and other orchestras were very keen to perform it, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Walter Susskind (conducting) and William Warfield doing the honours some weeks later in early 1974. Its mood is one of supplication for peace, effectively performed here. Whether either piece is entirely successful, due to the combination of declamation and music falling into the trap of pomposity and sentimentality is doubtful.

Charles Ives is represented by the very short Lincoln, the Great Commoner, probably written between 1919 and 1921 for chorus and orchestra, both coping admirably with Ives’s tapestry of fragments of so many tunes woven with added tone clusters. Roy Harris’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight set the words of Vachel Lindsey’s poem of the same name for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, a work full of atmosphere conjuring up the worries of a man for whom peace has been elusive: “a mourning figure walks, and will not rest…the sins of all the warlords burn his heart.” Sharon Mabry gives a thoroughly thought-out rendition, in complete sympathy with the writings of composer and poet; this is a highly effective piece.

Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend was written at the height of the war in Europe in 1941, and after he had sent a copy of the score to Toscanini, the conductor gave the première in 1942 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Gould, ever the expert orchestrator, uses American folk-tunes with great success in this impression of Lincoln’s life, and the Nashville Symphony gives a rich rendition; most effective is the ending with Lincoln’s funeral procession followed by an evaporation of the music to niente.

The most substantial work is Ernst Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865. Written in 1946, this collection of 12 movements portrays events in the last week of Lincoln’s life. It is good to have a recording of this excellent piece, and so well played, too, with its wide variety of invention including a fugue for strings and timpani, and, again, use of American folk-tunes. George McKay’s To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute) was written in 1939 in response to events in Europe and the lack of democracy in the dictatorships as discussed with his friend (and Serge Koussevitzky’s nephew), Fabien Sevitzky, who later gave the première in Indianapolis. McKay’s orchestral works are well worth investigating for their depiction of American pastoral scenes and subtle use of indigenous tunes. In five movements, this includes for the third a rousing march, and the epilogue impresses with its quiet ending.

Paul Turok’s Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty dates from 1963. “Lincoln and Liberty” was a song Lincoln’s campaign team for 1859 used to the Irish tune “Rosin the Bow”, a tune which uses just the seven white notes. Using this barest of material Turok produces a kaleidoscope of results in a little over nine minutes. It sounds as though Leonard Slatkin and his orchestra relished their performance!

This is the second release with the Nashville Symphony and Leonard Slatkin that I have heard in recent months. As with the previous Corigliano recording, this current one shows off a highly accomplished orchestra recorded in the very fine acoustics of its new hall in the Schermerhorn Center. Recording quality is really first-class. In addition, the accompanying booklet comes with texts and excellent and informative essay by Jane Vial Jaffe. “Abraham Lincoln Portraits” makes a splendid addition to the catalogue and is highly recommended for its variety of content and fluent performances.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group