Argento: A Nation of Cowslips; Three Motets; Spirituals and Swedish Chorales

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LABELS: Collins
WORKS: A Nation of Cowslips; Three Motets; Spirituals and Swedish Chorales
PERFORMER: Christopher O’Riley (pno); Ensemble Singers of the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota/Philip Brunelle
Dominick Argento (b1927) is one of a number of senior American composers unashamed to let his music speak directly from and to the heart, using a tonal language calculated to please even the most conservative listener. His large output of vocal music and judicious choice of texts is represented in Philip Brunelle’s collection by four contrasting choral works. Much the most substantial is the 20-minute setting of Wallace Stevens’s poem Peter Quince at the Clavier. Some of the musical imagery may be a bit obvious, but the slow procession of the final section creates an especially haunting atmosphere. The Keats miniatures set in A Nation of Cowslips are, by contrast, light, witty and charmingly Brittenesque. Three motets written for Brunelle’s church choir are deeply felt but somewhat conventional, and I failed to come to terms with the typically Minnesotan juxtaposition of old Swedish chorales and too-polite negro spirituals in the final work. It’s good to hear Brunelle’s expert Plymouth Music Series forces again, after some splendid recordings for Virgin a few years back. His 24-voice choir is superbly drilled and sings with great polish and beauty of line; English listeners might find the results a shade too smooth, but it’s very accomplished musicianship. Stephen Maddock