Thomas Hampson / Eckart Preu

Michael Daugherty: Letters from Lincoln

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While Michael Daugherty is widely known for his entertaining scores and provocative subject matter, he seems to have lost touch with his craft and his métier with Letters from Lincoln, a presentational tribute to the martyred president that trips over itself through pompousness and corniness. It is quite embarrassing to hear baritone Thomas Hampson intone the words, "Abraham Lincoln is my name, and with my pen I wrote the same," to an accompaniment of trite country bones and fiddle in a style plainly cribbed from "Oklahoma!," then press on through Lincoln's texts in dry, boring recitatives that are unworthy of one of the cleverest composers of his generation. "Bloody Conflict" is painfully derivative of Sondheim and Bernstein, particularly in its ham-fisted orchestration and thumping rhythmic syncopation, but Daugherty has enough sense to set "Mystic Chords of Memory" to an elegiac melody of considerable power and lyricism. The quotation of "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" and the hymn-like "Letter to Mrs. Bixby" are lacking in genuine pathos because of the uninvolving blandness of the setting. "Mrs. Lincoln's Music Box" is a weak attempt to depict the First Lady's madness through a jumble of flexatone glissandos and polytonal bugle calls that culminate in an outburst over an "ugly dream" about Tad. Finally, the sweeping, song-like opening of "Gettysburg Address" is all too brief, for Daugherty feels the need to set the scene with obvious tone painting and a throwaway quotation of "Dixie," so what should have been a stirring setting of Lincoln's most revered text comes across as a confused montage of the worst clichés in the Americana vein. Surprisingly, the two filler pieces by Anton Webern, the Langsamer Satz and Im Sommerwind, are the most enjoyable tracks for their lush harmonies and sweet melodies, and anyone who listens to this CD will rank them far above Daugherty's clumsy and forgettable solo cantata. Eckart Preu and the Spokane Symphony deliver the music with clarity and energy, and the recording is clean and natural.

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