CD cover artThe Pulitzer Project

Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus

Carlos Kalmar, Conductor; Christopher Bell, Chorus Director

Cedille Records

  • A Free Song – William Schuman
  • Appalachian Spring – Aaron Copland
  • The Canticle of the Sun – Leo Sowerby

Cedille’s initial release of The Pulitzer Project comes across as one of those great ideas that you can’t believe hasn’t been done before. With all the pomp and circumstance that revolves around the Pulitzer, it is a real shocker to find how few of these pieces are commercially recorded, much less have entered any sort of regular programming rotation. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus seek to correct this startling issue by recording early Pulitzer winners and, in two out of of three cases on this disc, provide world premiere recordings, to boot.

William Schuman’s secular cantata A Free Song won the first Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943 and the piece is a contemporary of his better known Symphony for Strings (Symphony #5). The choral writing is full of strong and richly scored harmonic writing with a few excited sprinkles of contrapuntal writing. The text, From Drum Taps by Walt Whitman, seems made for Schuman’s setting. Part I is somber and solemn with an almost ritualistic quality. Part II begins with boisterous imitative fugal counterpoint in the orchestra which quickly catches fire in that typical Schuman way.

Leo Sowerby’s The Canticle of the Sun is the last work on the disc and is comprised of 11 shorter attaca movements based on text by St. Francis of Assisi. Sowerby’s music is lush and dramatic at the opening but Sowerby easily transforms the mood from segment to segment. The music is equally playful, tender, rhapsodic, bold, and joyful. While the chorus dominates the musical activity, the orchestra deftly balances its activity and blurbles so as to never get in the way of the voices. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus have created an exemplary recording of these works.

In an interesting choice of programming, this disc skips Howard Hanson’s 4th Symphony, the Pulitzer winner in 1944 and skips on to Appalachian Spring and The Canticle of the Sun, winners of the 1945 and 1946 prizes, respectively. I take some issue with this exclusion of the Hanson but I can see all sides of the situation. Cedille is aiming the disc at as broad of a market as possible. Librarian/collector folks will be interested in hearing the world premiere recordings of lesser known (or completely unknown) works. Appalachian Spring, the single most performed Pulitzer winner in the history of the prize, is going to attract a broader audience who are simply interested in that piece. Since the Schuman and the Sowerby each use chorus and orchestra, it does make a certain amount of programming sense to have those two works on the same disc, too. Personally, I would rather have a Grant Park Orchestra recording of Hanson’s Fourth Symphony than another recording if Appalachian Spring.

Appalachian Spring is, in some ways, a bit of a let down. The performance is solid and the orchestra does a great job with the piece, but this is the same Appalachian Spring that I’ve heard hundreds of times before. If the GPO would have recorded the work in its original 13 instrument form, with the full ballet score and not the shortened suite that has become so popular, then I would have been exceedingly interested in the disc. Furthermore, the longer version with its original instrumentation was the piece that won the Pulitzer, not the popular orchestral suite. There would be no better time to record that version of Appalachian Spring than this very disc.

As it stands, the disc gives good performances of lesser known works and one warhorse. It is interesting to hear how the sound world of a “Pulitzer winner” has changed in the last 70 some years. I hope the series continues and might consider putting Concerto Fantastique alongside the 1992 winner The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark due to the notoriety of the Shapey work. That isn’t going to happen, I know, but a guy can dream.

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