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Review from
American Record Guide
September/October 2002

Hindemith: "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom 'd"
Jan DeGaetani, ms; William Stone, bar; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/ Robert Shaw
Telarc 80132 (62 minutes)

This is a mid-price reissue of a Robert Shaw classic. Shaw owned this music, and in two ways: not only did he leave us our greatest recording, but he also commissioned it from the composer in the first place. He knew it better than any other conductor could possibly hope to. Although composed by a native German, it is as thoroughly American a piece as you will ever find. And it was the sort of project that Shaw, the Dean of American choral music, certainly relished.

This is a work of fascinating parallels. When Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in April of 1945 (almost exactly 80 years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln), Shaw quickly sought to memorialize him in a large-scale choral work from a modern master. Hindemith, having fled the Nazis in 1937, had found gainful employment and acceptance in America. As a newly naturalized US citizen, he wished to express his feelings about his new country, as well as to honor the memory of Roosevelt, the world's leader in the just-won global struggle.

Hindemith found his ideal setting in Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet's masterly threnody to Lincoln: a fallen captain in the fight against tyranny of a different sort. No American leaders had been as bitterly or universally mourned as Lincoln and Roosevelt were. Whitman's wondrous poetry-with its potent symbols of martyred hero, public grief and individual loss-spoke eloquently, even 80 years later, of a nation's sorrow-and not only for Roosevelt, but for all who had just died in their country's service.

The finished product deserves to be ranked as one of the 20th Century's supreme choral masterpieces, alongside such milestones as Vaughan-Williams's G-minor Mass, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Janácek's Slavonic Mass, and Britten's War Requiem. But you wouldn't know it, from the paltry three or four recordings it has had.

Hindemith is still viewed as a soulless musical academic, whose intellectual complexity and structural formality leave no room for feeling. But listen to this music: it is by turns powerful, profound, bittersweet, and comforting. Listen to it in honor of somebody you've lost who was dear to you. I have been on a Hindemith crusade for years, and he gave of his very best in this piece. His structural ingenuity and contrapuntal wizardry, as well as his heartfelt sentiments, are everywhere in evidence.

I don't know how anyone can improve on the sheer choral accomplishment of Shaw's recordings-including this one. His orchestra shines brightly here too, in a work that gives it much important material. Although his interpretations have often been criticized for blandness born of perfectionism, none of the world's great choruses have been more carefully chosen or as meticulously prepared as Shaw's. He was THE choral conductor par excellence, whose work will be studied and standards emulated forever. Technical perfection aside, Shaw felt this music very deeply, and so did his musicians.

Shaw's soloists are almost always superb, if not always well known. Baritone William Stone, a Shaw favorite, gets the lion's share of solo work here. His mellifluous sound and heartfelt delivery make me wonder why we haven't heard more of him with other conductors. Jan DeGaetani was America's queen of modern vocal music, and her lovely, poignant singing here is greatly to be treasured.

The sensitive and edifying program notes (with text) are reinforced by Shaw's own letters to the choruses that worked with him through his 40-year history with this piece. Telarc's early digital sound (1986) remains of demonstration quality. And it's a bargain, too! Watch for more classic mid-price Shaw reissues in the coming months.

-Lindsay Koob