Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Revelations of Divine Love
Rupert Gough, cond; Rebecca Henning (sop); Jonathan Mark Roberts (bar); London Univ Royal Holloway Ch; Buttrick Snf
ALBANY TROY 1143 (66:03
Text and Translation) Live: Cambridge 6/26/2009
Carson Cooman has composed, with this oratorio, 800 works to which he has assigned opus numbers, ranging from instrumental compositions, to chamber works, to symphonies, to short operas. He is also a concert organist, specializing in contemporary works,
over 130 of which have been written for him. He also writes about music, reviews compositions and recordings for a number of publications, including
, produces recordings for his own label, runs a consulting service for composers and musicians, and represents several of them. He is 27 years old this year. All reviews of his works start with these facts and then mitigate the extravagance of his activities. I am not sure, at this point, that the excess isn’t a problem.
I know his music primarily through two of the three CDs that Naxos has devoted to his works: one of orchestral and chamber works (8.559329,
31:3) and the other of sacred choral works (8.559361,
31:5) and two other recordings: “New Dawn” on Albany TROY 1053 (32:4) and “Threads,” from his own Zimbel label. The three reviewed releases were all, with some reservations, well received by my colleagues. The works are attractive, accessible, well crafted, often devotional, but occasionally quirky and clever and sometimes engagingly naive. They are rarely challenging to the listener or technically progressive. And sadly, since Cooman is clearly a composer with skills and energy, they do not—at least based on the small sample I have experienced—create any coherent picture of a mature talent. It is perhaps too much to expect at 27, but after 800 works in such a wide variety of forms, one would expect a more distinctive profile to have emerged. He seems to try on a style or an idea, give it a few adjustments, dash off the result, and move on. He is undeniably good at it, but there is too much that seems unrealized, too little really labored over. Quantity does not always preclude quality, but it can result in glibness. What Cooman seems to need—if I may presume—is dissatisfaction with what apparently comes very easily and the patience, focus, and
to take all this raw talent and create something with more depth and more complexity; to take that fecundity and channel it into a more personal, more thoroughly worked-out, and frankly more developed voice.
Listening to the opening of
The Revelations of Divine Love
—the prologue full of anticipation, and the choral setting of a quote from
The Book of Margery Kempe
(oddly, translated from Middle English into Latin instead of modern English) of more than the usual complexity and specificity for this composer—the thought crossed my mind that perhaps this was it. The work promises much. Subtitled “Metaphors from Sea and Sky,” it explores two very different sources of inspiration: the writings of 14th-century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich and the natural beauty of Nantucket, finding in one the metaphor for the other, the site providing the location for contemplation. The idea works well in concept: Julian’s disturbing vision of Jesus’ suffering in “The Blood from the Garland” seconded by the dark, rough waters of Nantucket Sound, “The Fiend” contemplated on the stormy South Shore, “Endless Love” embraced in the calm solitude of Hummock Pond. Paired poems by Robert Herrick and another by Elizabeth Kirscher make more explicit the other inspiration: the sea and sky of Nantucket harbor. Cooman’s fine descriptions of both literary and scenic backgrounds add to the experience.
And yet, much as I appreciate elements of later sections, the expectation of unity and of a larger vision fades as the work unfolds, despite thematic references across movements, a unifying use of string ostinato, and a conclusion that echoes the prologue. The impression that lingers after the hour-long experience is of a collection of pleasant but somewhat bland choral settings that tend to stand on their own. The writing, traditional and at times almost reactionary, is often lovely. It veers toward the sentimental at times, as in the setting of “Prayer,” but is saved from that by its sincerity and simplicity. There are occasional harmonic modernisms, notably in “The Blood from the Garland,” and contemporary instrumentation, like the use of tuned percussion, that seem well integrated but hardly characteristic. Influences are felt, but not appropriated: here one finds traditional homophonic (and occasionally monophonic) hymns and Britten of the
Rejoice in the Lamb
style, Vaughan Williams in valedictory mode, and an acknowledged gloss on the French Baroque overture in “It Is I,” though the trumpet writing needs to be more brilliant to complete the effect. Still, there is too little contrast within the work as a whole, too little specific response to the text, and too little sense of cumulative purpose.
The recording is from the American premiere at Harvard’s Memorial Church, a single performance last summer with the Choir of Royal Holloway, University of London, which commissioned the work, conducted by its director Rupert Gough, a friend of the composer. This is the same excellent choir that recorded Cooman’s choral works for Naxos. That recording showed the choir in its best light. Here the bright acoustic creates a thinner sound and the exigencies of a one-up live performance result in a few (though relatively few) mishaps of precision and intonation. The soloists are young singers: the soprano, Rebecca Henning, a member of the chorus, and the baritone, Jonathan Mark Roberts, a recent graduate of Harvard College. Henning seems uncomfortable in her first solo, tight on top and not absolutely true of pitch or control, but improves as the work progresses. Roberts, light of voice for a bass-baritone, is both accurate and expressive. The Buttrick Sinfonia appears to be a contract group of Boston-area musicians, with fine soloists. The performance is certainly worth hearing. To be clear, this is an important work by a talented young composer. It may well be pointed to in years to come as a transitional work on the way to a deeper, more focused, and more mature phase in Cooman’s output. It certainly should be approached in that hope and expectation.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
Works on This Recording
The Revelations of Divine Love by Carson P. Cooman
Jonathan Mark Roberts (Baritone),
Rebecca Henning (Soprano)
London University Royal Holloway Choir,
Period: 20th Century
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