BARBER Choral and Organ Works · Timothy Brown, cond; Cambridge University Chamber Choir; Jeremy Filsell (org); Thomas Adès (pn) · GUILD GMCD 7145 (60:45)
Two Choruses, op. 8; Agnus Dei, op. 11; “Heaven Haven,” “Sure on This Shining Night,” fm. op. 13; A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, op. 15; Reincarnations, op. 16; “The Monk and his Cat,” fm. op. 29; Vanessa, op. 32: excerpt; Wondrous Love, op. 34; Antony and Cleopatra, op. 40: two excerpts; Two Choruses, op. 42; Chorale Prelude, “Silent Night”; “Happy Birthday” Variation
The essence of this review can be stated succinctly: If you enjoy Samuel Barber’s music, but are unfamiliar with his works for chorus, you have a pleasant task ahead of you, and this is the place to start. (Actually—though less succinctly—the place to start is with the Grammy Award-winning Koch International disc [see Fanfare 15:6] that contains two masterpieces from the composer’s maturity: Prayers of Kierkegaard and The Lovers. The disc under discussion here should come next!) Barber formed and conducted a madrigal choir at the Curtis Institute during the late 1930s and early 40s, and several of these pieces were composed for that group. His highly literary and melodic style was ideally suited for this medium, and these pieces include some of his most deeply felt music. And most of the arrangements of pieces originally intended for other media are ideal as adapted for chorus. In fact, it is easy to cite the selections here that are not irresistible: “The Monk and his Cat” from the Hermit Songs is not a favorite of mine in either its original soprano-and-piano version or in this one; nor is the cutesy waltz, “Under the Willow Tree” from Vanessa. Less successful as an independent entity is the rather dry “On the Death of Antony” from Antony and Cleopatra. The Chorale Prelude, “Silent Night,” from the orchestral piece for Christmas, Die Natali, is not too interesting, in either its original version or in thesolo organ arrangement presented here. And the tiny variation on “Happy Birthday” might best be overlooked. But that’s it, folks: Apart from those twelve minutes, the rest is great!
The Two Choruses, Op. 8, consist of a capella settings composed during the mid-1930s: one, for women’s voices, of a translation of an ancient Latin text, “The Virgin Martyrs,” and the other, a setting for mixed voices of Emily Dickinson’s “Let Down the Bars, O Death”—the latter in something of a neo-Josquin mode. Agnus Dei is the increasingly popular setting for a capella choir of the celebrated Adagio for Strings. In this and the Dickinson setting, Barber evokes associations with the spiritual purity of 16th-century choral writing, while intensifying their sense of pathos through subtle application of romantic harmonic techniques. “Heaven-Haven” (also known as “A Nun Takes the Veil”) and “Sure on this Shining Night” are lovely choral arrangements (with piano) of solo songs from the composer’s Op. 13. The choral settings highlight polyphonic nuances lying within the structures of the originals; the latter of the two is the most beloved of all Barber’s songs. No one who loves these selections in their original settings will want to miss these alternative versions. The music for “On the Death of Cleopatra” is better known through the second of the two scenes, “Give me my Robe,” that Barber extracted from his opera and re-shaped into a concert piece for soprano and orchestra. That this music of somber grandeur makes a more stunning impact in the latter form in undeniable. But this choral commentary, which concludes the opera, is not without impact or appeal.
A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map is a 1940 setting for male voices and timpani of an anti-war poem by Stephen Spender. The music returns repeatedly to a virile martial refrain among which are placed episodes of quiet, reflective lamentation. Imaginative, highly expressive use of chromatic melodic motifs and largely consonant harmony results in a brief, hauntingly understated assertion of pacifism. This deeply moving work is often heard with the optional support of a brass choir. However the performance here is so solid that nothing is lost by its absence.
The Reincarnations are Barber’s a capella masterpieces. Also completed in 1940, these settings are based on ancient poetic fragments collected and elaborated by Irish poet James Stephens, a favorite of Barber. This material provided an opportunity for the composer to draw upon elements associated with the old English madrigal, to create refreshing, gently modern reinterpretations of an antique genre, while achieving a flexibly free tonality without abandoning consonant harmony. Though only eight minutes long, these impeccable, utterly beautiful and sensitive settings stand among the composer’s finest music, although they have yet to achieve the widespread appreciation they warrant.
Wondrous Love is a work composed in 1958 for organ solo, and is subtitled, “Variations on a Shape-Note Hymn.” An old modal hymn melody, presented initially in a primitive harmonic setting, has a haunting appeal, while the variations gave Barber the opportunity to experiment with some novel harmonic combinations.
Another haunting beauty is the first of the Two Choruses, Op. 42, “Twelfth Night,” a 1968 setting of a poem by Laurie Lee. An expression of feeling and atmosphere via religious metaphor, it is the sort of thing that often inspired the best from Barber. The companion piece, “To be Sung on the Water,” sets a poem of more secular, but no less evocative, mood and tone by Louise Bogan.
The choral performances offered here are presumably the same as those that appeared on a Gamut compact disc (reviewed in Fanfare 18:1), which I described as “a pleasure to hear from beginning to end.” Although I no longer have that disc in my possession, the current release leads me to believe that some slight reservations I expressed regarding the interpretations were unwarranted and regrettable. This disc can be recommended without hesitation or reservation. And the solo organ pieces were newly recorded for this release. To pursue acquisition of this disc, contact www.guildmusic.com.