The Pulitzer Project = WILLIAM SCHUMAN: A Free Song; COPLAND: Appalachian Spring; SOWERBY: Canticle of the Sun – Grant Park Chorus and Orch./ Carlos Kalmar – Cedille

by | Feb 21, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

The Pulitzer Project = WILLIAM SCHUMAN: A Free Song; COPLAND: Appalachian Spring; LEO SOWERBY: The Canticle of the Sun – Grant Park Chorus and Orchestra/ Carlos Kalmar – Cedille 90000 125, 74:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Cedille does not indicate, cleverly perhaps, if this is the first in a series of albums, though it is titled The Pulitzer Project. I can think of few more outstanding efforts than to record all of the Pulitzer Prize winning compositions since the inception of the award in 1943—it would stand as a landmark series in anyone’s mind, and would ensure the record label of legendary status, especially if each release is as good as this one. The Pulitzer is probably the most coveted prize in American music, though it has not been without controversy (the same set of jurors representing the same type of academic music for years and years), and even some winners are quite critical of the selection process. Reviewing the list of winners one is appalled at how many compositions didn’t make the “cut” with the general public, though most music aficionados will have trouble spotting any piece that doesn’t fit the “high quality” designation—in this sense the award is a great success despite the composer and critical carping.
We start with the first winner, William Schuman’s 1943 A Free Song. Schuman draws on the texts of Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps to present us with a forceful combination of pathos and unrelenting optimism. The first movement is the most affecting because of its direct reflections of the author’s work at Washington DC hospitals during the Civil War. The second movement is barely able to contain Whitman’s optimistic vitality and un-assuaged faith in the American way of life and liberty.
1944, where Howard Hanson’s Fourth Symphony took the prize, is skipped in favor of the perennial favorite and most-played of all Pulitzer winners, Copland’s Appalachian Spring.  Here I must protest a bit, for the 1945 full orchestra composition, and the one most played, is simply not what won the prize, but the original 13-instrument compete ballet, which has far fewer recordings (and more notes as well). I do wish Cedille had bucked the trend, and instead of giving us this well-played but nowhere-near-the-best recording of a piece that has been given constantly and continuously since 1945, had offered the original genuine prizewinner instead.
Perhaps the real spectacular on this disc is the 1946 The Canticle of the Sun by Leo Sowerby, most often known for his religious and organ compositions. This orchestral and mixed chorus piece is based on Matthew Arnold’s translation of Francis of Assisi’s famous work. Sowerby was the Chicago Symphony’s virtual composer-in-residence for 30 years, and that experience served him well in composing what he always considered was a secular piece, not a religious one. Nevertheless the sonorities and amazing contrasting sections of the work make it one of the most vibrant and really overwhelming choral pieces ever written by an American.
The Sowerby and Schuman pieces are, amazingly, first recordings, and the wide soundstage and spectacular depth and presence of the orchestra are fitting compliments to two deserving pieces. If Appalachian Spring doesn’t quite live up to expectations it in no way diminishes the importance of this release. Let’s pray that Cedille continues the efforts.
—Steven Ritter

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