BARBER: The Lovers. Prayers of Kierkegaard.

BARBER: The Lovers. Prayers of Kierkegaard. Andrew Schenck conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; with Dale Duesing, baritone; Sarah Reese, soprano. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7125-2H1 [DDD]; 51:51. Produced by Michael Fine.

This is the most exciting new release to come my way in a long time, and a definite entry for this year’s Want List: the first recording ever of Samuel Barber’s last major work — the only large-scale composition to appear from his pen after Antony and Cleopatra –– and the best performance and recording ever of what may well be Barber’s greatest work. The recording was made from a series of live performances that took place in October 1991.

The Lovers, composed in 1970, is a thirty-two-minute cantata for baritone soloist, chorus, and orchestra based on romantic poems by Pablo Neruda, presented in English translation. The work comprises nine sections that document with painful acuity the evolution of a love relationship from its beginning in erotic attraction to its ending in sadness and disillusionment. At the time of its composition, Barber’s reputation was at its lowest ebb and, despite an auspicious premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the work was generally disregarded or dismissed as the superfluous product of a reactionary composer who had outlived his relevance.

It is difficult to imagine such a reaction to The Lovers today, as listeners exhibit a growing enthusiasm for more and more of Barber’s work. The music represents the distinctive post-Romantic language of the composer’s maturity, which evolved during the late 1950s — a language considerably expanded from that which provided the basis for his best-known works from the 1930s. One of the remarkable characteristics of Barber’s music — both early and late — is the general absence of obvious stylistic antecedents — composer or school of composers — although his basic vocabulary, within a clearly tonal framework, is based on harmonic .and melodic elements that are certainly familiar enough. While not without its less compelling moments, The Lovers is a deeply moving work, delving into intimate, vulnerable emotional realms with delicacy and sensitivity, despite the large forces used. Barber was a master of choral writing, and the use of massed voices in this work is breathtaking (the baritone soloist is featured in only three of the nine sections). The work is unified by several lovely motifs, the most important of which does not reveal its full meaning until its apotheosis in the penultimate section. The orchestration is richly colored and evocative though understated, exploding with unrestrained opulence only at climactic moments. Baritone soloist Dale Duesing is superb, as are chorus and orchestra. I can only add that I have been virtually unable to stop listening to this work since the recording arrived.

The only reason my enthusiasm for Prayers of Kierkegaard may appear more muted is that I am much more familiar with this work and have written about it several times in the recent past. If anything, it is an even more fully consummated work than The Lovers. In reviewing the CD reissue of the Louisville performance (Fanfare 13:5, p. 110), I wrote, “This is a work of unsurpassed beauty in the composer’s canon, with passages of warm lyricism, hushed, awe-filled reverence, and some moments of drama and excitement. There is a lovely soprano solo, the choral writing is gorgeous, and the sequence of sections is masterfully shaped for maximum effect.” Indeed, I can think of no other work of Barber’s whose level of inspiration is so consistently high. To this I can only add that Barber-specialist Andrew Schenck, who died shortly after this recording was made, leads a stunning performance — far superior to the Louisville recording and to several live and taped renditions I have heard.

As the program notes observe, this pairing unites two facets of Barber’s character — the romantic and the spiritual. With each facet represented by music of such high quality, the composer’s creative personality emerges with extraordinary eloquence. In short, here are two little-known masterpieces, making for a new release that is indispensable to all admirers of the music of Samuel Barber, as well as to those listeners who enjoy true romanticism in a modern guise.