VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Dona Nobis Pacem. BARBER: Prayers of Kierkegaard. BARTÓK: Cantata Profana

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dona Nobis Pacem.  BARBER Prayers of Kierkegaard.  BARTÓK Cantata Profana – Robert Shaw, cond; Atlanta SO & Ch – TELARC CD-80479 (71:00)

Partisans of the three composers represented here are likely to be familiar with each of these works, probably through recordings devoted to each composer individually. This new release, on the other hand, provides an ideal opportunity for less specialized listeners to introduce themselves to three major 20th-century choral works, at least two of which — the Vaughan Williams and the Barber–represent their composers at their very best.

Vaughan Williams composed his Dona Nobis Pacem during the years 1935-36, as fascist governments were seizing power throughout strategic parts of Europe. The work is an intense expression of pacifist beliefs, delivered primarily through secular texts. The strongest portions of the half-hour work are the two central sections — deeply moving settings of Whitman texts: “Reconciliation” from Leaves of Grassand Dirge for Two Veterans. Surrounding them are excerpts from a variety of Biblical texts conveying similar yearnings for peace, along with a few highly poetic lines taken from a political speech. The musical language is that of Vaughan Williams’ maturity, and is ideally suited to his noble secular humanism: a characteristic integration of parallel minor triads moving freely, creating a sense of desolation, combined with modal harmonizations of folklike, diatonic melodic material, enriched by passages of lush, Delian chromaticism.

In contrast to the public humanism of the Vaughan Williams work stands the intensely private and personal spiritual devotion expressed in Samuel Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard. Like so many of the composer’s finest works, it treats matters of religious faith with a romantic intensity of emotion — here a painful yearning to reach an unattainable state of grace, expressed with almost unbearable beauty. Dating from 1954, this work too exemplifies the composer’s mature musical language, in this case suggesting a sense of awe in the presence of the supernatural. Through pseudo-chantlike passages, the music evokes vague impressions of a medieval monastery as a backdrop against which are projected complex spiritual feelings characteristic of the doubt and uncertainty of the 20th century. All committed Barber admirers must have the Grammy Award-winning Koch International disc (3-7125-2H1) featuring Prayers of Kierkegaard, along with the magnificent late masterpiece The Lovers, performed superbly by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by the late Andrew Schenck. However, this new recording offers a slight advantage by dint of its somewhat richer, fuller, yet more transparent sonority, more carefully contoured phrasing, and more secure solo vocal contributions by soprano Carmen Pelton, mezzo Nannette Soles, and tenor Richard Clement. On the whole, however, the two interpretations are basically quite similar.

The least satisfying work on the program is Bartók’s secular Cantata Profanaof 1930, sung in Robert Shaw’s newly revised English translation. Based on an ancient pagan tale in which nine brothers who know of nothing but hunting are transformed forever into stags, never to return home, the cantata is interesting in concept, and rife with symbolic implications that reflect on matters of maturation and emancipation. However, the musical elaboration features a double chorus, at times further subdivided into multiple chromatic lines, creating densely-woven, dissonant contrapuntal textures that are often excessively congested. While occasionally displaying a  rough-hewn vitality, the work is largely dreary and disappointing — definitely not one of Bartók’s better scores.

The performances are generally good, with fine solo contributions by baritone Nathan Gunn, along with those mentioned above. The chorus, however, is somewhat lacking in clarity, so that the texts are rarely discernible to the ear. More precise delineation of lines might have improved the impact of the Bartók.