Works showcase nation's musical bounty

Recordings show depth of American composers

November 25, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

True to its name and its origins, the Thanksgiving holiday inspires in us feelings of gratitude for life and an appreciation of our extraordinary heritage as Americans. And in my house, right up there with turkey and stuffing, (ahead, even, of football), there is beautiful music on hand to bring these themes home for the holiday.

For the plushest, good old American hymn-sing around, I turn to "Amazing Grace," an assortment of 20 vintage hymns and spirituals arranged and conducted by the late Robert Shaw (Telarc 80325).

More than anyone else, Shaw personified the genius of America's choral tradition, and this anthology, including such favorites as the title song, "Wondrous Love", and "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal," is a lovely reminder of his art. The choral sound is rounded, yet supple enough to keep things under control. These homespun melodies are gussied up to a fare-thee-well, which is how I like them. But if you fancy a more sober, subdued, scrubbed-white New Englandy excursion into our national psalter, seek out Joel Cohen's American Vocalist program on Erato 45818. You'll lose a bit of adrenalin, but the spirituality level stays high all the way.

A warm, lyrical slice of Americana awaits you on a new anthology of short orchestral works from Raymond Leppard's Indianapolis Symphony, "American Dreams" (Decca 458157).

George Whitefield Chadwick's languid symphonic sketch "Noel," Thomas Canning's "Fantasy on a Hymn Tune" and Hoagy Carmichael's mushy but lovable "Prayer & Cathedral Vision" join Samuel Barber's ubiquitous "Adagio for Strings" as highlights of the program.

For the most raucous musical expression of our national character I know, you can turn to the 2nd Symphony of that irrepressible New Englander, Charles Ives. Dance tunes, hymns from old camp meetings and cornet band ditties dot the score, along with snatches from "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," "Turkey in the Straw," "Bringing in the Sheaves" and "Reveille!" But you hear them only after they've passed through one of the most iconoclastic musical minds our country has produced.

Superb performances come from Leonard Bernstein (Sony 6202 or 47568) and Neeme Jarvi's Detroit Symphony (Chandos 9390).

No list of American classics should fail to mention Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," and you need look no further than Leonard Bernstein, another American classic, to bring that wonderful score to life (Sony 63082). It's been nearly 40 years since the recording was made, but the strains of the lovely Shaker tune, "Simple Gifts," have yet to sound nobler or more grand.

Themes of thanks and gratitude make their way into the mainstream classical repertoire as well.

In Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the famous storm sequence is followed by a lyrical "Song of Thanksgiving" that concludes the piece. It's Beethoven at his warmhearted best, especially when brought off by Bruno Walter (Sony 64462) or Karl Bohm (DG 447433).

In earlier days, Christianity's "Te Deum" (We Praise Thee, O God) was sung as a prayer of thanksgiving following military victories and the like, and there are crackerjack settings of its rousing words by Handel, Berlioz, Bruckner and Verdi.

Verdi's is the "Te Deum" supreme and, as one of the "Four Sacred Pieces," it is coupled with the all-time Verdi Requiem on EMI 747257 with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting.

For Berlioz, try the "Te Deum" released recently by Dennis Keene and his Ascension Choir on Delos 3200.

Bruckner sounds great on Hyperion 66650 (Matthew Best's Cory-don Singers), and Handel's "Dettingen Te Deum" bounds with joy on DG 410647 with Simon Preston and his Westminster Abbey Choir.

Pub Date: 11/25/99

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