Virgil Thomson wrote his share of sacred music and a big batch of it is included in the new collection “Heaven is Music,” (Albany Records). The performances by the Gregg Smith Singers are from throughout the choir’s long history, presumably drawn from both concerts and recording sessions. In the back of the CD booklet there’s a little caveat the about the mixture of digital and analog recordings. While the age of some of the recordings does show through, it’s seldom distracting and the performances are consistently good.
Gregg Smith, 78, founded his eponymous chorus in 1955 and is reportedly in very poor health these day. Lord knows how many pieces of American music they’ve performed and recorded. So this is collection is a fine tribute to him as well as Thomson.
While there’s more than sacred music here, the program keeps returning to liturgical and biblical texts, opening with an a cappella “De Profundis” of tightly crafted part writing, and closing with the rather straight-forward Three Hymns from Old South, which are sung with big heart and sound.
The disc’s centerpiece is the Mass for Two-Part Chorus and Percussion (1934). It’s consistently upbeat, sung with full voice from a mixed choir. There’s no giant battery of percussion instruments deployed, but generally only one instrument per movement: a gong in the Kyrie, a hallow sounding drum in the Gloria, and a cymbal in the Sanctus, etc. And the Credo — the most militant and dogmatic movement of a Mass — gets the crisp and orderly snare drum.
Soprano Rosalind Rees, who happens to be Smith’s wife, sings the Four Songs on Poems of Thomas Campion (1951). Thomson gives them a lively rippling setting for viola, clarinet and harp. It’s the most playful music on the disc, reminiscent of both Four Saints (the opening line is even “Follow your Saint, follow with accents sweet.”) and The Mother of Us All. Adding to the feeling is the churning harp, which brings to mind a psaltery or dulcimer.
Also included are Seven Choruses from the Medea of Euripides, a piece with a long history explained in the notes by Watson Bosler. Briefly, they were written in 1934 for a theatrical production by John Housman that never got off the ground. In 1967 Daniel Pinkham reworked the original SSAA version for SATB, which is what’s recorded here. They’re short and very greatly in character from the intimate “Weep for the Little Lambs” to the triumphant “Behold, O Earth.”
Beyond these larger works, a number of what seem to be occasional pieces are tossed in for good measure, like the “Welcome to the New Year,” which is sung with a hail and hearty sound that brings to mind a college glee club. And what would a choral disc be without some nod to Christmas, as in “The Holy and the Ivy”? Finally, was it just a coincidence that “My Shepard Will Supply My Need” (based on a traditional hymn tune) is given track 23?