HAMPSON SISLER: Phoenix Forever; In the Wake of the Storm; Music in the Soul; Prayer of St. Francis – Soloists/ Praga Sinfonietta/ Marlon Daniel – MSR

by | Feb 25, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

HAMPSON SISLER: Phoenix Forever; In the Wake of the Storm; Music in the Soul; Prayer of St. Francis – Lori-Kaye Miller, mezzo-soprano/ Darnell Ishmel, baritone/ Melissa Cintron, soprano/ Praga Sinfonietta/ Marlon Daniel, conductor – MSR 1389, 44:50 [Distr. by Albany] **1/2:
This is my second encounter with the music of Hampson Sisler, organist and composer currently at the First United Methodist Church in Westfield, New Jersey. My first listen is reviewed here and my opinion hasn’t changed a lot. Phoenix Forever, taking Stravinsky’s Firebird as inspiration (though this music sounds nothing like that) takes us through the four stages of the mythical bird’s life, always in tonal, easy-to-listen-to, and basically slow-moving music, which is one of my main complaints about it. Sisler either doesn’t really like, or is incapable of sustaining, music that is fast-moving or dependent on a certain formal expression that only a lot of motional activity can suggest. It crawls at points, ostensibly using the cautionary movement as means of more note-centered expression, but the whole can get tiring at times. This piece has a lot going for it melodically and in terms of basic “pleasantness”, but that’s about all.
I am afraid In the Wake of the Storm, his reflections on Hurricane Katrina and the Indiana Ocean tsunami, suffer the same lethargy. Though the notes indicate that this work focuses on the “brooding nature of the brewing disaster”, easily a valid premise, one longs for a little more energy than what is provided.
Music in the Soul, to poetry of Jaroslav Vrchlicky, is a secular cantata for mezzo and baritone on the theme of love, and is easily the best and most convincing thing on this disc. Both Lori-Kaye Miller and Darnell Ishmel are outstanding in their roles, and here we hear what Sisler is really capable of, an extremely sensitive, dramatic, and downright beautiful extended work of great substance and some terrific music.
His earlier 1970 Prayer of St. Francis can’t keep up though. It relies on a through-composed scheme, which means each section of the text must be counted on for inspiration with no thematic tie-ins to earlier music. It’s not bad except that it is preceded by his magnificent Music in the Soul and makes it difficult to forget what went on before. Melissa Cintron’s wobbly and unstable vocal account doesn’t help matters either.
One of the constants on this disc is the out-of-tune, rather scrappy and blown-note-laden performances of the Praga Sinfonietta, sounding as if they desperately need two more weeks of rehearsal. I wish Music in the Soul had been released somewhere else; as is, these generally not interesting and badly-played readings (along with only 45 minutes of music) can’t pass muster for a recommendation.
—Steven Ritter

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