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Contemporary Music Media Review

First Recordings of First Pulitzer Prize Winning Works

July 13, 2011 - Williamsburg, MA:

The Pulitzer Project: Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring Orchestral Suite, William Schuman: A Free Song, Leo Sowerby: The Canticle of the Sun; Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus, Carlos Kalmar, cond., Christopher Bell, chorus dir.; Çedille Records CDR 900000 125, © 2011, TT 70:00, $16.00.

The first ever Pulitzer Prize in Music was awarded in 1943, to the Schuman piece above (listings are in alphabetical, not chronological/performance order); the Copland, in its original ballet form for 13 instruments commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for Martha Graham, won it in 1945, and the Sowerby, in 1946.  (For the curious, Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 4, Op. 34, won it in 1944; the complete list is available here.)  Copland and Hanson were members of the committee that awarded the Prize to Sowerby, who, with Hanson, had been the recipient of the first ever Rome Prize in 1921.  The Copland has become one of the country's most famous and popular works, enjoying countless performances and recordings (some 41 currently available at Arkiv Music; some 136 listed on Amazon.com), especially in its orchestral suite version heard here, which the composer created later in the prizewinning year.  The other two works have never before been recorded, so this fine CD is a major milestone.

The texts for both of the choral pieces come from the works of famous personages: A Free Song comes from Walt Whitman's Drum Taps; its title comes from a line in the poem, in part 2 of the setting; The Canticle of the Sun is Matthew Arnold's 1865 English translation, found in his Essays in Criticism, of a hymn of praise by St. Francis of Assisi, Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures), written in 1224 in the Umbrian dialect.  The Canticle was also set by Amy Beach in 1924, by Roy Harris in 1961, and by Seth Bingham in 1962, all three for chorus with differing instrumentations, with alternative organ accompaniment for the Beach. Hermann Suter set the original Umbrian version in an oratorio, also in 1924, and Charles Martin Loeffler set a modern Italian translation for soloists and chamber orchestra in 1929; it was performed in the same 1945 concert in Carnegie Hall where Sowerby's setting, written in 1944, premièred, which both Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem attended.  William Walton set it in Italian in 1974, and Sofia Gubaidulina in 1997 for Mstislav Rostropovich on the occasion of his 70th birthday.  The Beach and Gubaidulina settings have been recorded.

The two-part, ca. 14-minute Schuman piece is a very patriotic setting, typical of music composed to inspire the public during WW II.  Walter Simmons suggests in his latest book that this rather than its musical attributes was primarily responsible for his receiving the first Prize (p.73).  It does not, however, go overboard in that vein, even if it seems a bit dated to our somewhat less jingoistic 21st century ears.  Schuman was primarily a symphonist, so, although he composed for a cappella choruses of varying types, the bulk of his works involving voice are for chorus (rather than soloists) accompanied by an orchestra or orchestral ensemble; this is not the sole one in a patriotic vein, or the only one to use a Whitman text.  Sowerby, on the other hand, is known today primarily as a church music composer and organist because that was his profession for most of his life; although he also wrote much orchestral and chamber music, the 11-verse ca. 32-minute Canticle is thus main-stream for him.  It is not at all "churchy," however, its text being almost pantheistic rather than specifically Roman Catholic Christian; its main drawback to our minds is perhaps its length.  Both works exhibit a strong similarity to each other musically, are tonal, not dissonant, and contain a good variety in dynamics, reflecting sensitivity to their texts and following them closely sonorously.  This, rather than the creation of memorable melodies, was clearly the focus of both composers; the pieces bookend the more melodic Copland in the recording.

This project was the conductor's concept and these performances are superb.  The orchestra exhibits excellent ensemble and precision.  The Copland, where it can be assessed independently, is a truly fine impeccable performance.  The dynamic control and clarity of diction of the chorus, which makes its recording début here, are outstanding.  Everything is clear, crisp, bright, and sparkling clean.  In spite of the fact that the recording was made during live performances in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago's Millennium Park (on 25 and 26 June 2010), virtually no audience noise was detectable to my ears and the sound quality is excellent.  The whole is a very satisfying listening experience.

The booklet's cover features a long shot color photo of the musical forces in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Grant Park (not the concert/recording venue), with a close-up of the groups on its stage filling a two-page spread on pages 4-5.  Credits are on the inside of the front cover with track listings and timings on the facing page and complete personnel listings on the page 5-6 spread.  The fine notes about the Schuman and Copland works are by noted program annotator Dr. Richard E. Rodda; those for the Sowerby are by Francis Crociata, president since 1993 of the Leo Sowerby Foundation: they were apparently those for the performances.  These are followed by the texts of the choral works, followed in turn by the bios of the conductor and chorus director and brief descriptions of the orchestra and chorus.  The pp. 26-27 spread lists the six other recordings by the orchestra under this conductor.  The back cover is solid black.