Bracketing the rather sober compositions on this fine release are Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Agnus Dei. Arturo Toscanini suggested that Barber rework the Adagio movement from his String Quartet No. 1 for full string orchestra. Toscanini premiered the Adagio for Strings in New York in 1938, and was the first to record it. The Adagio was Barber’s first "hit," and remains his best-known composition. Its elegiac beauty has been widely associated with tragic loss since it was selected for radio play after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and the Adagio figured prominently on the soundtrack of Oliver Stone's anti-Vietnam war film Platoon. Barber’s Agnus Dei is here performed a cappella by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus. It is a choral setting of the traditional Latin prayer “Agnus Dei,” and the melody is also from the same Adagio movement in his First String Quartet.
John Corigliano’s 1965 Elegy is based on his incidental music for Wallace Frey’s play Helen, about the aging Helen of Troy. He dedicated it to Samuel Barber, a mentor and friend who had introduced the then-unknown composer to the attention of G. Schirmer, still Corigliano’s publisher. Today, Corigliano is much honored, having won a Grawemeyer Award, a Pulitzer Prize, several Grammy awards and an Oscar for the soundtrack to the 1998 film The Red Violin. Elegy is a striking work, briiilantly orchestrated, and a welcome discovery for this writer. Jennifer Higdon set Dooryard Bloom for baritone and orchestra to Walt Whitman’s great poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Whitman wrote Lilacs as an elegy to the slain Abraham Lincoln, although the poem never names Lincoln. Higdon comments, “The beauty of music is the power to suggest things that even words might not convey. Therefore, take your own meaning from this piece, literally or emotionally or metaphorically... let it be your own dooryard.” Amen.
John Adams is America's most celebrated active composer. On the Transmigration of Souls, for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and pre-recorded soundtrack, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Lorin Maazel's recording with the New York Philharmonic won three GRAMMY® awards. Adams wrote the work in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy. He describes it as “a memory space — a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions.” The piece is typical of Adams' skill in masterfully manipulating diverse performing forces into a coherent whole. Especially affecting, to this listener, is the recorded soundtrack, comprising fragments of radio and phone conversations from that fateful day with the reading of names of some of the victims -- which creates a kind of netherworld hovering somewhere between the brutal realities and elusive memories of that day.
I have had mixed feelings about Robert Spano's performances, both on his Telarc recordings and in a couple of guest-conducting appearances with the Chicago Symphony. But here he gets top marks. There are many recordings of the Adagio for Strings, most of them very good — the piece seems to call out the best in whatever ensemble performs it — but Spano and his Atlantans do themselves proud. Ditto for the chorus in Agnus Dei. I have not heard any other performance of the Corigliano, but this one is excellent.
The Higdon is also beautifully paced and played, and I must single out for special praise baritone Nmon Ford. He sings well, and his sensitivity to the text is most impressive.
in his recently published memoir, John Adams lavishly praises the live performances of this work in Atlanta, and I feel confident he would similarly praise this recording. I have not heard the Maazel, but it is hard to imagine a finer performance than this one.
I have also had mixed feelings about Telarc's recorded sound from Atlanta. On some releases it has been excellent, but on others has seemed a bit congested at times, and generally I have thought Telarc's Cincinnati recordings have been somewhat better. Here the sound is resplendent — the usual great Telarc dynamics, but also gorgeous tonality and convincing spatiality.
This magazine's reviewing conventions call for the ratings to include "Enjoyment." I will give this release our top 5-Note score, but enjoyment is the wrong word here. We can apply it to the Barber and Corigliano works, but the Higdon and, especially, the Adams are emotionally harrowing works that leave me drained. That said, I so admire both the compositions and these performances that I will certainly return to hear them, though not casually.
In my opinion, for this release Telarc deserves not just a tip of the cap, but a deep bow from the waist. Bravo, bravissimo!