The choirs of Washington National Cathedral -- boys, girls, and adult altos, tenors, and basses -- have made great strides technically under director of music Michael McCarthy and have released a series of albums that can stand with those of the better-known professional choirs in the U.S. In this one they handle a variety of compositions and arrangements with confidence and a sense of controlled development of the program. The main reservations pertain to the billing of the album rather than to its actual contents. Buyers expecting that the title America the Beautiful would promise a selection of patriotic tunes will get satisfaction mostly at the beginning and end of the program, where the cathedral's organ and the talents of the Washington Symphonic Brass are deployed in arrangements of America, America the Beautiful, The Washington Post March, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Star-Spangled Banner, and The Stars and Stripes Forever. In between comes a selection of hymnody, both black and white, and even music pertaining to "the traditions of Washington National Cathedral itself," which has only a glancing relationship to the patriotic theme; McCarthy's arrangment of Charles Hubert Parry's Jerusalem was composed for the funeral of Ronald Reagan in 2004. Taken on its own terms, however, the music is both unusual and interesting. The group of arrangements of African-American spirituals brings together a variety of approaches, from the classic William Dawson setting of There Is a Balm in Gilead to Michael Tippett's somehow very British versions to the spectacular Moses Hogan setting of Abide with Me, that would be hard to hear together anywhere else. Organ pieces, including the reflective and apparently completely non-nationalist-related Aria by Paul Manz, break up the program effectively. The bottom line: just make sure you want what you're actually getting here. The booklet essay (in English only) was not edited by anyone who knew the difference between "its" and "it's," and no texts for the vocal pieces are provided.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim