- The Canticle of the Sun, cantata for chorus & orchestra
The Pulitzer Project is an intriguing concept for an album, especially because it fills in gaps with two prize-winning works that are receiving their first recording. The release brings down to eight the number of works that have not been recorded from among the 65 prizes that have been awarded from its inception in 1943 to 2011. Only a handful, though (most prominently Copland's "Appalachian Spring"), have entered the standard repertoire, and the majority have received only a single recording, so the prize, in spite of its prestige, has proven to be a poor predictor of a work's longevity and standing in history. These three works come from early in the music Pulitzer's history: William Schuman's "A Free Song" (the first piece to receive the award, in 1943), "Appalachian Spring" (1945), and Leo Sowerby's "The Canticle of the Sun" (1946). The Schuman and Sowerby are choral works, the first very brief at 13 minutes, and the second a more substantial 32 minutes. The two movements of the Schuman use texts from Whitman's "Drum Taps," the first movement lyrically melancholy and the second with the kind of aggressive energy for which the composer is better known. The Sowerby, which sets Matthew Arnold's translation of the familiar prayer by St. Francis, engages the mind more than the heart. It's skillfully put together, but the composer's overuse of imitative counterpoint wears thin, and the overall tone feels too angst-y for such an exuberant, cheerful text. The inclusion of the orchestral suite from "Appalachian Spring" is something of a stretch in the context of the album's theme, since it was the complete ballet in its original version for chamber ensemble that actually won the prize. It's such a terrific performance, though, that there's no point in quibbling. Carlos Kalmar is a conductor of exceptional energy and insight and the top-notch, responsive playing he draws from the Grant Park Orchestra should put to rest any notion that regional orchestras cannot deliver thrilling performances. The Grant Park Chorus, directed by Christopher Bell, is likewise superlative, singing with precision and lovely tone. Cedille's sound is spacious and well-balanced; occasional murkiness is probably due more to the denseness of Sowerby's choral writing than to the engineering.