Review: Land of Harmony: American Choral

In many “music in history” recordings, the history rides in the front seat with the music relegated to the back. That doesn’t happen here, thanks to some snappy repertoire, a skillful and enthusiastic choir, and a conductor-arranger-historian who really knows what he’s doing. The subtitle of the program is American Choral Gems from the Bay Psalm Book to Amy Beach, and there are indeed some sparklers in the mix. Before we get to the music, though, let me report that the Bay Psalm Book was a volume of religious music published in Massachusetts Bay in 1640, and was the first book of any kind published in North America.

On to the glitter. James Lyon’s “The Lord Descended” must surely be the most colorful and virtuosic 4 minutes of music ever penned by a clergyman from 18th-century New Jersey. The loveliest song here is J E Spilman’s “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” heard in a three-part version published by Ohioan James Sullivan Warren in 1857. It’s secular, true, but it touches the soul as much as “Amazing Grace” or anything else here.

Stephen Foster’s “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming” with its evocative soprano descant, also works that boundary between the secular and the sacred. It’s in the Billings set that you can hear some excellent conducting at work. Billings shifts tempos and other gestures at the drop of a hat and can be a hard fellow to stay with. Not here. “I Am the Rose of Sharon” is the real charmer of the set. I also was pleased to make the acquaintance of Patty Stair (1868–1926), a woman who became a musical force in her home city of Cleveland, where she founded organizations still in existence today; and R Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943), the first composer of African descent to have joined ASCAP.

Everything is sung stylishly, and the concert was recorded in strong, clear sound. There’s some audience noise, which increases toward the end of the program as things start to run a little long. (I smiled as the coughing increased just as I was becoming aware of the passage of time.) The applause didn’t bother me, though. It was well deserved and never broke a mood or a flow. Texts and the maestro’s excellent notes are included.

 

[Quire note: To order your copy of this recording, click here.]