Abraham Lincoln Portraits

0 of 5 stars

Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865
Lincoln Portrait
Lincoln Legend
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
Lincoln, the Great Commoner
To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute)
A Lincoln Address
Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty

Barry Scott (narrator) [Copland]

Sharon Mabry (mezzo-soprano) with Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (violin), Anthony LaMarchina (cello) & Roger Wiesmeyer (piano) [Harris]

Nashville Symphony Chorus

Nashville Symphony
Leonard Slatkin

Recorded in Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee – 1 July 2007 (Gould, Turok, Copland), 6 July 2008 (Ives, Persichetti, Bacon, McKay) and 27 September 2008 (Harris)

Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: February 2009
8.559373-74 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 53 minutes



Leonard Slatkin and his Nashville forces contribute these performances for the bicentennial celebrations of the birth of Abraham Lincoln in 1809. The pieces here were selected from a list of ninety inspired by the writings, actions and principles of this sixteenth President, and two of the eight use settings of his words.

Most well-known is Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” which was commissioned by André Kostelanetz just after America’s entry into the Second World War, and is very much a product of its time with its urging of patriotism. Copland used words from Lincoln’s address to Congress in 1862. Abram Bergen in “Intimate Memories of Lincoln” wrote: “But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.”

The work’s music evokes nostalgia for rural America and has that feeling of wide, open spaces so characteristic of Copland’s music. The narrator, Barry Scott, has rich stentorian tones quite unlike one would imagine Lincoln’s voice, which contrast with Copland’s clever use of folksongs, including “Springfield Mountain” and “Camptown Races”.

Vincent Persichetti’s “A Lincoln Address”, based on Lincoln’s second inaugural address, was commissioned in 1973 by the Presidential Inaugural Committee after a recommendation from Eugene Ormandy. There followed difficulties with the chosen texts due to the war in Vietnam, and after some cuts were made and more requested, Persichetti was informed that the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charlton Heston would not be performing the piece after all. This created huge publicity and other orchestras were very keen to perform it, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Walter Susskind (conducting) and William Warfield doing the honours some weeks later in early 1974. Its mood is one of supplication for peace, effectively performed here. Whether either piece is entirely successful, due to the combination of declamation and music falling into the trap of pomposity and sentimentality is doubtful.

Charles Ives is represented by the very short “Lincoln, the Great Commoner”, probably written between 1919 and 1921 for chorus and orchestra, both coping admirably with Ives’s tapestry of fragments of so many tunes woven with added tone clusters. Roy Harris’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” set the words of Vachel Lindsey’s poem of the same name for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, a work full of atmosphere conjuring up the worries of a man for whom peace has been elusive: “a mourning figure walks, and will not rest … the sins of all the warlords burn his heart.” Sharon Mabry gives a thoroughly thought-out rendition, in complete sympathy with the writings of composer and poet; this is a highly effective piece.

Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend was written at the height of the war in Europe in 1941, and after he had sent a copy of the score to Toscanini, the conductor gave the première in 1942 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Gould, ever the expert orchestrator, uses American folk-tunes with great success in this impression of Lincoln’s life, and the Nashville Symphony gives a rich rendition; most effective is the ending with Lincoln’s funeral procession followed by an evaporation of the music to niente.

The most substantial work is Ernst Bacon’s “Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865”. Written in 1946, this collection of 12 movements portrays events in the last week of Lincoln’s life. It is good to have a recording of this excellent piece, and so well played, too, with its wide variety of invention including a fugue for strings and timpani, and, again, use of American folk-tunes. George McKay’s “To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute)” was written in 1939 in response to events in Europe and the lack of democracy in the dictatorships as discussed with his friend (and Serge Koussevitzky’s nephew), Fabien Sevitzky, who later gave the première in Indianapolis. McKay’s orchestral works are well worth investigating for their depiction of American pastoral scenes and subtle use of indigenous tunes. In five movements, this includes for the third a rousing march, and the epilogue impresses with its quiet ending.

Paul Turok’s Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty dates from 1963. “Lincoln and Liberty” was a song Lincoln’s campaign team for 1859 used to the Irish tune “Rosin the Bow”, a tune which uses just the seven white notes. Using this barest of material Turok produces a kaleidoscope of results in a little over nine minutes. It sounds as though Leonard Slatkin and his orchestra relished their performance!

This is the second release with the Nashville Symphony and Leonard Slatkin that I have heard in recent months. As with the previous Corigliano recording, this current one shows off a highly accomplished orchestra recorded in the very fine acoustics of its new hall in the Schermerhorn Center. Recording quality is really first-class. In addition, the accompanying booklet comes with texts and excellent and informative essay by Jane Vial Jaffe. “Abraham Lincoln Portraits” makes a splendid addition to the catalogue and is highly recommended for its variety of content and fluent performances.

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