April 2009

Abraham Lincoln Portraits: Music by Ives, Persichetti, Harris, Bacon, Gould, McKay, Turok and Copland
Nashville Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Leonard Slatkin cond., with Barry Scott, narrator; Sharon Mabry, mezzo-soprano; Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, violin; Anthony La Marchina, cello; Roger Wiesmeyer, piano
Naxos 8.559373-74
Format: CD
Released: 2009

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

What is perhaps most remarkable about this set is that it has taken until now to materialize, the Lincoln bicentennial year having provided the timely impetus. The tragic, beloved figure of Abraham Lincoln has inspired a great deal of music, from his time to our own; the one well-known piece is Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which concludes this program, following seven other 20th-century American works that will be "discoveries" to most listeners, and in the event pretty happy ones.

The Lincoln Legend composed by Morton Gould in 1941 (and introduced by Toscanini the following year) is built on songs known to Lincoln and associated with him, treated in the colorful and inventive style Gould had already perfected by age 27. Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty, by Paul Turok (the only living composer represented here), focuses on a single tune (not among those used by Gould), with similar resourcefulness and appeal.

Naxos has effectively revived the music of George Frederick McKay on several earlier CDs; his five-part "Lincoln Tribute" called To a Liberator (with chorus) definitely holds its own here, powered by a confidence and directness well suited to its subject.

There are twelve brief sections to Ernst Bacon’s evocative Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week 1865. Roy Harris’s solo cantata of Vachel Lindsay’s "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," the most poignant of Harris’s several Lincoln works, is chamber music (sung by Sharon Mabry with a piano trio from the orchestra), aptly positioned as an intimate prelude to the Bacon work. Ives’s Lincoln, the Great Commoner, another choral piece (part of Edwin Markham’s poem), is an effective prelude to the entire program.

A Lincoln Address, commissioned from Vincent Persichetti for the concert on the eve of President Nixon’s second inauguration, was scrapped because of its possibly "inflammatory" text, but was taken up in other venues within a week of that event. That work and the familiar Copland are the weak links in this program, not for any musical failure but because the chosen narrator’s oratorical style simply seems out of character for Lincoln’s sober directness in addressing the sorrows and hopes of a self-questioning nation.

But the Lincoln Portrait is by now one of those things we can hardly avoid duplicating, and if that track is passed over this is still a valuable collection. Leonard Slatkin obviously believes in all this music and once again has the Nashville SO playing its collective heart out to acquaint us on the most persuasive level with music we might otherwise have missed, while the robust, well-balanced sound puts everything in the most flattering light. I might only question why there are no texts for the two choral pieces (Ives and McKay), though texts are included for the Harris piece and the two works with narration (Persichetti and Copland).