The program of this Naxos release offers something less than the broad spectrum of American choral music the title might suggest. 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, despite Naxos' penny-wise, pound-foolish ways; the package is stuffed with an entire second booklet of advertising, but the listener is forced to the Internet to get the sung texts.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Carols of Death|