Alleluia! Sacred Choral Music in New England

Alleluia! Sacred Choral Music in New England – Randall Thompson, Samuel Holyoke, George Chadwick, John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach, Horatio Parker, James Woodman, Gerald Near, Charles Ives, Kirke Mechem, Charles Beaudrot, Ned Rorem, Harvard University Choir, Murray Forbes Somerville, Nancy B. Granert

Linda Pohly

The title of this recording is somewhat misleading. While most of the fifteen selections are indeed sacred choral music of New England, a few have only a vague relationship to this theme. For example, Ned Rorem (a native of Indiana) is not a New Englander – the liner notes mention that he summers on Nantucket – but his anthem Arise, Shine was written in 1977 for an American Guild of Organists convention held in Connecticut. Two of the works on the disc are for organ alone: Canzonetta by George W. Chadwick and Vivace from the Sonata in C by James Woodman. Other works seem more consistent with the title and exemplify many of the choral styles heard throughout American history. The seventeenth century is represented by Psalm 100 and the eighteenth century by Make a Joyful Noise from the pen of Samuel Holyoke. Music from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is more abundant. Chadwick’s anthem Sun of My Soul appears in addition to the canzonetta; Confiteor from John Knowles Paine’s Mass in D, Amy Beach’s Let This Mind Be in You, and the Easter Anthem (“Light’s Glittering Morn”) by Horatio Parker round out the contributions from the Second New England School. Two works from Randall Thompson are heard: Alleluia (the title cut) and The Best of Rooms. The diversity of twentieth-century vocal music is further exhibited in the Sixty-Seventh Psalm by Charles Ives; Praise Him, Sun and Moon by Kirke Mechem; This Is My Commandment by Charles Beaudrot; and a second setting of The Best of Rooms by Gerald Near. There is variety in the texts. Some are biblical or biblical adaptations, others are drawn from sacred poetry or liturgical passages from the Mass or the Book of Common Prayer.

The performance level is commendable; the diction is usually clear, the balance good, and the blend and dynamic contrasts pleasing. The choir (but not necessarily the soloists) seems to project an English-style clear tone, perhaps a result of the English background of the conductor Murray Forbes Somerville. Minor concerns, such as the spreading of the second syllable of “alleluia,” the elision of some words (e.g., “as I”), a few muffled consonants, or intonation fluctuations (for example on the Mechem piece), are occasionally noticeable. The textural variety contained in the repertory makes for pleasant listening. Some numbers are sung a cappella, while others are accompanied by the organ; and some feature solos or small ensembles with the choir. Make a Joyful Noise is sung by Harvard’s Morning Choir, which consists of eighteen voices, compared to the full ensemble of fifty. Particularly interesting is the use of seventeenth-century English pronunciation for Psalm 100. Paine’s mass movement is sung in Latin and is the only non-English selection on the disc. The choir shows its versatility in the presentation of Robert Herrick’s text, “The Best of Rooms” in two different settings: Near’s setting is considerably shorter than Thompson’s and it contains more contemporary harmony, which is handled well.

The quality of the recorded sound seems to be better for the voices when compared with the recorded sound of the organ solos. Clarity of line is sometimes lacking in the latter, and the bass sounds heavy, perhaps the result of registration or articulation choices. Likewise, some slight background noise from the 1857 instrument is acknowledged.

The accompanying notes are in three parts. An introductory section by Elliot Forbes, emeritus professor of music at Harvard, serves as an overview of the history of sacred choral music in New England. The larger middle section provides notes on the selections, composers, and texts. These entries are quite inconsistent in topic, scope, and usefulness. Lesser-known composers such as Near and Beaudrot are treated briefly and only in their connections to Massachusetts; more information about them is hard to find and would have been appreciated. On the other hand, material already available in standard sources (such as biographical information on Beach) is included. Occasionally no biographical information is provided for a composer: this occurs in the case of Holyoke, where the notes refer only to the performance of his Make a Joyful Noise at the 1793 Harvard Commencement. The final section of the commentary deals with the history and current structure of the Harvard ensemble as well as production credits.

Northeastern Records and the Harvard University Choir are to be commended for making more American music available to interested listeners, especially shorter choral works. This disc touches upon many of the musical styles of New England from across the centuries, but it is in no way complete. While it does not claim to be a comprehensive historical survey, it would be interesting to know, for example, why no repertory from the Yankee tunesmiths is included.

Linda Pohly Ball State University

COPYRIGHT 1995 University of Illinois Press

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group