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CD Review

Abraham Lincoln Portraits

  • Charles Ives: Lincoln, the Great Commoner 1
  • Vincent Persichetti: A Lincoln Address 2
  • Roy Harris: Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight 3
  • Ernst Bacon: Ford's Theatre – A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865 4
  • Morton Gould: Lincoln Legend 5
  • George Frederick McKay: To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute) 6
  • Paul Turok: Variations on an American Song – Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty 7
  • Aaron Copland: Lincoln Portrait 8
2,8 Barry Scott, narrator
3 Sharon Mabry, mezzo
3 Mary Kathryn van Osdale, violin
3 Anthony La Marchina, cello
3 Roger Wiesmeyer, piano
1 Nashville Symphony Chorus
1,2,4-8 Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.559373-74 2CDs 112:37
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With the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth upon us, such a release seems so very logical. According to the liner notes, the conductor reviewed some ninety pieces before settling on the eight works selected for this release. Sadly, many deserving works would seem to have been excluded. Perhaps the most significant, the Roy Harris Sixth Symphony, "Gettysburg," was not included. This piece needs a new recording and is, perhaps, one of that composer's finest works. Hopefully, it will be included in a future survey of Harris' Symphonies. Other lacunae include Weinberger's and Mason's Lincoln Symphonies.

Ives' essay provides a fitting introduction to this two-disc set. Amid the deluge of dissonance there is great dignity in the music. Persichetti's setting of words of Lincoln is perhaps best known for extra-musical reasons. His setting of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address was written for, but not performed for, Nixon's 1973 inauguration. Some thought that Lincoln's words were problematic when considered within the context of the then all too present Vietnam War. The music is primarily a reworking of materials from the composer's Seventh Symphony. The piece has none of the dramatic sweep of the Copland. The text provides the form, more so than any creative impetus of the music. The music merely seems to comment on the text as opposed to there being a true merging of text and music.

Of all of the works on this disc, Harris' "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" seems to capture the tragic spirit of Lincoln best. It is a setting for soprano, piano and strings of the words of Vachel Lindsay. There is a loneliness and sadness about the music which, to the ears of this listener, reflects the melancholy of this great, but tragic figure in our history. There is no flag waving, just heartfelt expression. This is its second recording, with an earlier release on the long gone MGM classical label.

While I often find moments of great interest in the work of Bacon, to my ears the music often fails to convey a cogent, musical rhetoric. It seems to be a collection of miniatures which do not contribute to an organic whole. This is not to say there is not much to admire in the music, for indeed there is a great deal of fine expression.

The music of Morton Gould and George Frederick McKay are two very good reasons to purchase this set. If Roy Harris captured the ruggedness of the American spirit, it was Morton Gould who captured the simple beauty and optimism of this country and branded it with a level of musical sophistication worthy of presentation in any concert hall. While his "Lincoln Legend" might not be his most brilliant essay, it is wonderful music, skillfully written and magnificently orchestrated. For those of you who had only the poor sounding Toscanini performance, this will be a most welcome addition to your collection.

Slatkin does us another great service by presenting us with the all too brief "To a Liberator." The music of McKay never fails to impress. It is marked by inspired melodic invention and solid craftsmanship.

The campaign song "Lincoln and Liberty," fashioned from the tune "Rosin the Bow," serves as the basis for Paul Turok's Coplandesque set of variations. It is a charming, beautiful work.

It was probably thought that no program of music about Lincoln could be complete without Copland's essay on the words of Lincoln. With so many fine recordings of this work it seems like a bit of overkill to have yet another recording, even if it does feature the fine reading of narrator Barry Scott.

Sharon Mabry, Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, Anthony LaMarchina and Roger Wiesmeyer do a fine job with the Harris. Slatkin's readings are respectful and perhaps a bit subdued. The playing of the Nashville Symphony sounds a bit tentative at times. Barry Scott's narration of both the Persichetti and Copland is respectful and well-considered. He conveys the words of Lincoln with great nobility. The recorded sound is excellent.

Each of the composers attempted an impossible task: capturing the essence of a great man in music. While Lincoln achieved greatness by rising to meet a crisis, with few exceptions, none of the composers rose to the challenge of capturing Lincoln in music. But perhaps that is not the goal of music. Yet of all of works inspired by Lincoln and his time it is the Harris Sixth Symphony, "Gettysburg," unfortunately, not included in this set, and Copland's essay, that seem to me to speak to the individuality, pragmatism, nobility, vulnerability, complexity and tragedy to be found in this remarkable man, and to his era.

Copyright © 2009, Karl Miller