BARBER Motetto. Two Choruses, Op. 8. Agnus Dei, Op. 11. Heaven-Haven, Op. 13, No. 1. Sure on This Shining Night, Op. 13, No. 3. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15. Reincarnations, Op. 16. Two Choruses, Op. 42. Easter Chorale. Happy Birthday, Sam Barber ● Eric Banks, cond; The Esoterics ● TERPSICHORE CD-1110 (53:28)
Samuel Barber’s choral music includes many of his finest works. Indeed, if his two large works for chorus and orchestra—Prayers of Kierkegaard and the unjustifiably neglected The Lovers—are added to most of the music found on this new release, the result ensures Barber’s place among the pantheon of great composers. Therefore it is gratifying to see a large portion of this body of work addressed by The Esoterics, a highly acclaimed a cappella ensemble based in Seattle. Founded during the early 1990s and conducted by Eric Banks, the group (The Esoterics, incidentally, is treated as a singular noun) specializes in meticulously shaped performances of a broad range of recent music for a cappella choir. Their (its?) ambitious efforts have resulted in much attention and many awards. This appears to be The Esoterics’ twelfth recording.
Now let’s take a closer look at the contents of this program: The core of Barber’s a cappella output comprises the three Reincarnations from the late 1930s, the Op. 8 Choruses (“The Virgin Martyrs” and “Let Down the Bars O Death”) from the mid 1930s, and the Op. 42 Choruses (“Twelfth Night” and “To Be Sung on the Water”) from 1968. All this music is simply gorgeous, exhibiting the exquisite emotional sensitivity that was Barber’s great gift, the contents divided chiefly between poems concerned with romantic love, and non-liturgical poetry that deals with spiritual or religious sentiments. Although these deeply moving settings are not widely known among the general musical public, they are standard fare among America’s many choirs, as well as quite a few in England.
However, best known of all is Agnus Dei, the composer’s own 1967 arrangement of his Adagio for Strings. Quite effective as an a cappella setting, it has become a classic in its own right, and is a favorite among today’s choruses. “Heaven-Haven” and “Sure On This Shining Night” belong to the Op. 13 group of four solo songs, from the late 1930s. The latter of the two is the most popular of Barber’s songs, and he subsequently arranged it for chorus with piano; he arranged the first for chorus a cappella. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map is a profoundly moving setting from 1940 of an anti-war poem by Stephen Spender, scored for male chorus with timpani. This is all Samuel Barber at his best. But as The Esoterics is strictly an a cappella group, the piano part of “Sure On This Shining Night” and the timpani part of A Stopwatch … are rendered vocally (!) by portions of the choir.
Then there is a short, inconsequential Easter Chorale from 1964. Happy Birthday, Sam Barber is simply a re-wording of a bagatelle intended in 1969 as a gift for Eugene Ormandy. It is skillfully crafted, but I could bear to listen to it only once. Its inclusion here is an acknowledgment of the composer’s recent hundredth birthday.
Likely to raise curious eyebrows is the piece called Motetto. This is a group of three settings from the Book of Job, composed in 1930, with the addition of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” dating from 1938, as the third of four sections. Evidently at one point Barber had intended the work in this form, but it was not published during his lifetime, and did not appear on his list of works. This raises a complicated issue: Barber’s output is relatively small (48 works) and most of them have been gradually entering the standard repertoire since his death thirty years ago. Few composers of the 20th century have enjoyed such comprehensive acceptance (most are lucky if a handful of their works achieves any sort of immortality). Thus it is understandable that musicians—and the publishers who sell the stuff—might wish there were more of it. At times calling to mind “the goose that laid the golden eggs,” there has been a revival of juvenilia and other pieces that the composer omitted from his official canon. But an issue of musicological ethics is involved here. Brahms destroyed those works he did not feel met his own standards of quality. But not all composers are so thorough. Do we assume that a composer selects those pieces to represent his body of creative work at random? Do we assume that he was unable to exercise wise judgment in such matters? Do we take upon ourselves the right to pick over that which he left behind for our own purposes? There are legal and copyright issues involved, but somehow this game of second-guessing is taking place with Barber’s music, and what has become clear to me is that every one of these “discoveries” was suppressed for a reason: none meets the standards set by his acknowledged canon (I do not include here the controversial case of the Symphony No. 2, which I feel does live up to those standards.) Motetto is a case in point: This is remarkably ordinary music that rarely rises above the most conventional choral fodder. “God’s Grandeur” utilizes a technique that appears in similar form in the second of the Reincarnations. Barber may have felt it redundant to include both. I don’t believe that such second-guessing is fair to Barber or to the legacy he chose to leave as his body of work.
Moving to the quality of the performances: The choir boasts impeccable intonation and balance, and the acoustical ambience is rich, spacious, and reverberant—perhaps too much so for some tastes. Most impressive is Agnus Dei, which the group has probably performed more frequently than any of the other pieces. It is the most shapely performance of the work that I have ever heard, with exquisite phrasing and voice-leading. Most of the other performances are quite polished and refined as well, if not as strikingly so. The only real disappointment—and it is a big one—are the Reincarnations. The interpretation of these settings strikes me as wrong-headed from beginning to end. The first song (“Mary Hynes”) comes off best of the three: Light and fleet, in the manner of an old English madrigal, it is rendered here metronomically, to rather mechanical effect. The second, “Anthony O Daly,” is funereal and dirge-like in character. This too is sung metronomically, and with virtually flat dynamics. Although the conductor’s program notes refer to the way it “[builds] to a heart-rending climax,” to my ears there is no build-up, so that the climax comes and goes without notice. Then, most disappointing is the third, “The Coolin,” one of the most beautiful a cappella settings I know. The tempo is inappropriately brisk and mechanical, allowing no opportunity to shape the poignant harmonic nuances, calling to mind the image of someone trampling a delicate flower garden in workboots. Reincarnations has been recorded a number of times, but no rendition I’ve heard can match the precision and sensitivity of the Gregg Smith Singers on an Everest LP from 1965.
Then, finally, we come to the rash decision made by Dr. Banks to render the piano part of “Sure On This Shining Night” and the timpani part of A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map by voices. Well, one may be momentarily struck by the first of these, but one adjusts without too much difficulty. However, when the latter piece begins, “duhduhduh di-di …,” an element is introduced into a profoundly tragic setting that can seem incongruously comical—especially later in the piece when the timpani’s upward glissandos are rendered. I can’t understand why Banks couldn’t bring the requisite three timpani into the studio.