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SACD Review

Samuel Barber

Harmonia Mundi SACD 807522

An American Romantic

  • Twelfth Night, Op. 42 #1
  • To be sung upon the water, Op. 42 #2
  • The Virgin Martyrs, Op. 8 #1
  • Let Down the Bars, O Death, Op. 8 #2
  • Reincarnations, Op. 16
  • A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15 1
  • Sure on this Shining Night, Op. 13: #3 2
  • Agnus Dei, Op. 11
  • The Lovers, Op. 43 3
  • Easter Chorale
1 Matt Tresler, tenor
1 Thomas Burritt, timpani
2 Faith DeBow, piano
3 David Farwig, baritone
3 Estelí Gomez, soprano
3 Derek Chester, tenor
Conspirare Company of Voices/Craig Hella Johnson
Harmonia Mundi HMU807522 79:44 Hybrid Multichannel SACD
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Climbing every mountain.

Critics, even someone as perceptive as the Barber scholar Barbara Heyman, love to hang the label "Romantic" or "Neo-Romantic" on Samuel Barber, to my annoyance. First, almost every American so-called "Modern" is a Romantic in his skin, despite the zoot suit he may sport. That is, most American composers assume many of the same things about expression and function of music that Brahms did. Either Brahms is a Modern – as Schoenberg put it, a "progressive" – or Barber is a Romantic. Yet, in his harmony and structure, he's as Modern as Stravinsky, or can be. Simply put, had Barber been born 100 years earlier, what do you think his famous Adagio would sound like? Probably little like how it does sound. I think what confuses people is Barber's ability to come up with great tunes and memorable gestures. His music doesn't come across as a blur of notes, but as a comprehensible artistic object in which one can invest emotion. Most Modern American composers, by the way, aim to do this.

Barber, despite catalogue items in almost every genre, considered himself primarily a vocal composer. He wrote choral music practically throughout his career and briefly conducted a chorus at the Curtis Institute before getting drafted into World War II. Most of this work needs a really good choir. I attended some of the live concerts which provided the basis for this CD. The programs shocked me. Every single piece was by Barber. I thought the conductor, Craig Hella Johnson, had a sadistic streak in him, because I didn't see any choir having the stamina, physical and mental, to make it through all of such a concert. Just one or two of these works on a program would take a lot. Indeed, Conspirare, slightly fagged, flagged slightly in spots as the concert went on, but rallied every time – heroic singing.

The first piece I ever heard by Barber was choral: the Emily Dickinson setting "Let down the bars, O Death." My high-school choir sang it. As a know-it-all teen, I thought it okay, but not great. Then I heard Robert Shaw rehearsing the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in Barber's powerful Prayers of Kierkegaard (that rehearsal also introduced me to Bach's Magnificat, where I just about levitated six inches out of my chair at the opening). Barber became a composer to seek out. Then I found the Adagio for Strings, the Piano Concerto, and the rest. If I consider my introduction to the composer and the amount of such items, recordings of Barber's choral music have run scarce on the ground – really good ones, even scarcer. I would say that we've needed a good all-Barber choral recording, and Conspirare fills the bill.

Barber read widely, in several languages, much of it, he admitted, on the lookout for texts to set. It turns out that, with one major exception, the song cycle Mélodies passagères, he set mainly English, even translations of foreign writers he had read in the original. A list of "his" authors shows a patrician taste: Dickinson, Matthew Arnold, Louise Bogan, James Joyce, Pablo Neruda, Kierkegaard, Rilke, and so on. Barber's particular gifts as a setter include his ability to find a coherent musical structure for poetry not necessarily in conventional song forms, as one can see in the concert aria Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for example, his sensitivity to words, phrasing, and meaning, as well as his usual genius for finding a memorable tune.

The British Laurie (Laurence) Lee's "Twelfth Night" depicts the birth of Jesus "in the bleak midwinter." From winter wilderness eventually shines the sun (Son) of heaven. Barber provides a gorgeously austere chorale that rises to a brief, blazing shaft of light and then fades back into the dark.

"To be sung on the water" sets a lyric by American Louise Bogan. The poem talks about the fragility of beauty and love, a major theme for the clinically-depressed poet. One hears in the music the ripple of water as oars dip from the small boat in which a couple rides.

I've come a way from my callow dismissal of "Let down the bars." Barber matches the surface simplicity of Dickinson's prayer with a chorale in which not a note is wasted. It's also a superb example of Barber's skill in finding the musical structure of the text. Coherence remains a major goal, threatened by the composer's adventurous musical development. Barber achieves it brilliantly by the simple device of repeating the first two lines.

Undoubtedly a choral masterpiece of the last century, Reincarnations takes three poems by Barber favorite James Stephens, free riffs on Irish poetry. On the other hand, it really is an odd work. It doesn't really hang together textually or musically, and yet it impresses the listener as a little choral symphony, even though it doesn't use symphonic forms. Each setting is a gem. The first, "Mary Hynes," about the most beautiful girl in Ireland, begins with rhythmic twists at breakneck tempo, with brief touchdowns on richly-spaced major chords. How anyone hits those chords in tune I've yet to figure out. The central section is a long, line with imitative entrances, lovely as a river, which may remind some listeners of Barber's Music for a Scene from Shelley or even the opening of Vaughan Williams's fifth symphony. The second piece, "Anthony O'Daly," sings of O'Daly's death and how all nature has simply stopped, "for O'Daly is dead." Barber builds the work out of stark, simple materials: a pedal point in the basses, the same tune in the other voices. However, he also works variations of pure genius. The bass, for example, sings in five beats, while everybody else phrases in three. He also puts the tune through closer and closer canonic entries – sort of like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" but with voices coming in more and more quickly. The interpretive challenge lies in the long crescendo Barber writes into the piece. The finale, "The Coolin" (the colleen, or fair one), a long, tender nocturne, recalls the rich choral textures of the late Brahms "Nachtwache I," from Op. 104. Its beauty will break your heart.

For "A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map," to a poem of the Spanish Civil War by Stephen Spender, Barber employs the unusual forces of men's choir and timpani – furthermore, timpani where the player must "slide" the notes using his tuning pedals. I've never heard a live performance where this thing stayed in tune and, until now, not a recorded one either, although in Robert De Cormier's classic account, the choir strove mightily to a successful correction of pitch. The poem talks obliquely of the death of a soldier by a sniper's bullet by focusing on the details of his military gear. The music alternates between the stern and martial and the eerie lament. Listen to this and tell me that Barber is no more than Brahms manqué.

Barber wrote "Easter Hymn" originally for brass and timpani. He then added a choral part with a text by one Pack Browning. It's a solid poem, but not a great one. Barber's setting does much to set my bells ringing with a sure instinct for wonderful, surprising chord progressions, and pealing "alleluias" in the refrain. Robert Kyr's arrangement for Conspirare uses chorus and mixed chamber ensemble.

"Sure on this shining night" and the Agnus Dei are Barber's own arrangements of previous work – one of his best songs and his mega-hit Adagio for Strings. I wish he hadn't. There's nothing terrible or ill-done. However, "Sure on this shining night" to me emphasizes a single soul "wand'ring far alone." Where the piano, canonically following the singer, sounds like the echo of the poet's thoughts, the choir's canonic entrances in the adaptation sounds like a crowd. Robert Shaw suggested that Barber arrange his Adagio as a choral Agnus Dei. Barber followed it up and produced another undoubted hit off the old one. It's not terrible, but just compare it to an original Barber choral work, like "Twelfth Night," for example. At least, the basses get to do something more interesting than hold pedal notes. That's fine for strings, but not for voices.

The highly-public fiasco surrounding the premiere of Barber's opera Antony and Cleopatra sent Barber into depression and alcoholism and very likely led to the breakup with the love of his life, Gian-Carlo Menotti. Yet Barber continued to receive high-profile commissions. Nevertheless, the Antony affair gave certain critics, already hostile to Barber, license to dismiss him. For a while, he ceased to matter in serious circles, although performers continued to perform him and listeners continued to listen and enjoy. Even the successful revival of Antony – which made it clear that the flaws arose from the mindless original production by Zeffirelli and that the opera was one of the composer's finest works – did little to raise Barber's stock. To this day, the works from Antony on get little play, and to some extent they reflect Barber's psychological distress.

The Lovers, commissioned by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, sets poetry by Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest political and love poets of the Twentieth Century. Neruda has a wide range in both genres. From a title like The Lovers, one would expect something ultimately joyous and tender, and Neruda has plenty of poems that fill the bill. However, the set of poems that Barber chose could be called "The Death of Love and Desire," undoubtedly prompted by his breakup with Menotti. The themes and the poems called for a treatment different from Barber's popular manner. I heard a recording of the Philadelphia premiere and also own the Koch CD of this work with Andrew Schenck conducting. Barber used a full symphony orchestra with commensurate chorus. For Conspirare, Robert Kyr has made a chamber version, which I prefer to the original. Kyr enhances the poems' intimacy and the texts' clarity without sacrificing the color of the original. This score will break your heart without crossing the line into sentimentality. It earns its pathos, just as Neruda does.

I've not yet been able to get my head around the fact that Austin, Texas – as opposed to New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, or Los Angeles – hosts a world-class chorus. Conspirare invites comparison to such choral elites as The Sixteen, Accentus, the Danish Radio Choir, the Monteverdi Choir, the Schoenberg Choir, and Marcus Creed's RIAS Chamber Choir. All these groups take on the peaks of the choral repertoire as well as explore the contemporary scene. You can take the basics – intonation, diction, rhythm, tone – for granted. Quickly said, Johnson and Conspirare have produced a milestone in Barber recordings. Each track is beautifully shaped, communicating both the musical structure and the inherent emotion. Their Reincarnations rivals the classic account from the Gregg Smith Singers. My one quibble comes down to Johnson's slightly too-slow tempo in the opening of "Mary Hynes," although I've heard him take it fast in live concerts. Johnson's Lovers currently stands as the finest incarnation of this work, and I doubt anybody will surpass it soon. David Farwig, the baritone who has the lion's share of the cantata's solo work, negotiates Neruda's verse with real intelligence, with a vocal quality that reminds me of Barber's recording of his own Dover Beach, although with a thoroughly modern dramatic style.

Satisfy the musical adult within and hear this disc.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet