BARBER: The Lovers. Reincarnations. Two Choruses, Op. 8. Two Choruses, Op. 42. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map. Sure on this Shining Night. Agnus Dei. Easter Chorale

BARBER The Lovers (arr. Kyr). Reincarnations. Two Choruses, Op. 8. Two Choruses, Op. 42A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map. Sure on this Shining Night. Agnus Dei. Easter Chorale (arr. Kyr) • Craig Hella Johnson, cond; Conspirare—Company of Voices; Chamber Orchestra; David Farwig (bar); Thomas Burritt (kd); Faith DeBow (pn) • HARMONIA MUNDI HMU-807522 (79:44)

In his program notes accompanying this handsomely produced new release, Joshua Shank writes that Samuel Barber “holds a permanent spot in the pantheon of 20th-century composers…. [A]s the music of the past century comes into sharper historical focus, it’s become apparent that Barber was clearly one of the great musical talents of his time.” Observing this process of continuously broadening recognition and appreciation during the three decades since his death, I have enjoyed the growing abundance of recordings and concert programs that feature his many orchestral masterpieces; this has been accompanied by a similar discovery of his music for piano. I have argued for some time that Barber’s choral music—works both large and small—are among the greatest and most profound fruits of his creativity, and we are now witnessing a proliferation of recordings of this portion of his output. Preceding this noteworthy offering have been discs featuring the Esoterics (on Terpsichore), the Joyful Company of Singers (on ASV), and the Cambridge University Chamber Choir (on Guild), all of which have been reviewed in these pages. The contents of these discs vary somewhat, but all offer meticulously fine, sensitive performances. As superb as this new release may be, it doesn’t warrant praise at the expense of the others.

But the discussion must begin with reference to another recording—one that would be on my “Want List” if I had to make five selections from the entire decade of the 1990s: Koch International 3-7125-2H1, featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by the tragically short-lived Andrew Schenck, in both Prayers of Kierkegaard and The Lovers—Barber’s masterpiece of spirituality coupled with his masterpiece of carnal and romantic love. I cannot recommend this release highly enough to those who are admirers of Barber’s music, but who don’t know these particular works. 

The remainder of this review assumes that the reader will have already acquired the Koch disc. This point is important because one of the main selling points of this new Harmonia Mundi release is its unveiling of composer Robert Kyr’s new chamber version of the cantata for baritone soloist, chorus, and symphony orchestra, The Lovers. The work was originally composed in 1971 on commission from Girard Bank of Philadelphia on behalf of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Acknowledging The Lovers as Barber’s valedictory masterpiece, Kyr states that he has “strived to create a more playable and affordable version” of the work. Reducing the orchestration from full symphony orchestra to an ensemble of 15, he feels that “a smaller version … is better suited to the sublime intimacy of [Pablo] Neruda’s poetry.” There is no question but that The Lovers has not received the attention that it deserves, so the notion that a version for reduced forces is more practical and may contribute to broader exposure for the work is reasonable, laudable, and desirable. Furthermore, Kyr has done a fine job of retaining—even highlighting—the basic musical elements, as well as aspects of the work’s essential character. And Conspirare, under the direction of Craig Johnson, provides a painstakingly sensitive and polished performance, although the baritone soloist isn’t ideal (but neither is Dale Duesing on the Koch recording), making Kyr’s reduction a fair and plausible compromise. But let’s not kid ourselves: This is no substitute for the original, and any claim to the contrary is a wishful rationalization. The work as Barber conceived it—depicting through Neruda’s poetry the course of a romantic relationship from beginning to end—reveals a sense of tragic grandeur that this version cannot approach. The claim that reduced forces emphasize the intimacy of Neruda’s poetry is unconvincing to anyone who is familiar with the original version. 

So, assuming that the reader already has that original version, the question is whether one also wishes to own Kyr’s reduction, and, since the 35-minute work occupies a sizable proportion of this disc, the answer may determine whether or not one decides to purchase the disc. Most of the remaining pieces—each a precious gem in its own way—can be found on any of the other recorded programs, and some of those offer their own unique features as well. The Conspirare release also features Kyr’s re-orchestration of Barber’s 1964 Easter Chorale. This 3-minute trifle, however, is of considerably lesser consequence. 

I will refrain from further comments on the individual pieces, as I have expressed myself on them in several previous reviews, to which I refer the interested reader (see Fanfare archive or They all exhibit the exquisite sensitivity to poignant emotions that is Barber’s greatest gift.