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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Choral Music
A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15 (1940) [5.25]
Under the Willow Tree from opera Vanessa, Op. 32, Act II (1956-57) [3.23]
Two Pieces, Op. 42: (Twelfth Night, Op. 42/1 (1968) [4:32]; To be sung on the water, Op. 42/2 (1968-69) [2:48])
The Monk and his Cat from Hermit Songs, Op. 29, No. 8 (1953 arranged for chorus 1967) [2:13]
Agnus Dei, Op. 11 (1967 vocal arrangement of Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 1936) [5:55]
Reincarnations, a trio of Celtic part-songs, Op. 16 (1940): (Mary Hynes, Op. 16/1 [2:44]; Anthony O’Daly, Op. 16/2 [3:49]; The Coolin, Op. 16/3 [3:13])
Two Pieces, Op. 8: (The Virgin Martyrs, Op. 8/1 (1935) [3:39]; Let Down the Bars, O Death, Op. 8/2 (1936) [1:53])
Two songs from the set of 4 Songs, Op. 13: (Heaven-haven, Op. 13/1 (1936, arr. for chorus 1961) [1:43]; Sure on this shining night, Op. 13/3 (1936, arr. for chorus 1941) [2:03])
Chorale for Ascension Day - Easter Chorale (1964) [3:02]
Two choruses from opera Antony and Cleopatra, Op. 40, Act III (1966): (On the death of Antony [3:11]; On the death of Cleopatra [2:51])
God’s Grandeur (1938) [7:44]
Deborah Kayser (soprano)
Grantley McDonald (tenor)
Len Vorster (piano)
Choir of Ormond College, University of Melbourne/Douglas Lawrence
rec. August 2000, Ormond College Chapel, University of Melbourne, Australia. DDD
NAXOS 8.559053 [60:09]

Samuel Barber was one of the most significant American composers of solo songs and he had a natural facility in writing for the voice. It’s slightly surprising, therefore, that he wrote relatively few choral works. There are a couple of major works for chorus and orchestra, Prayers of Kierkegaard (1953) and The Lovers (1971). Both were recorded by the late Andrew Schenck in 1991 and were once available on Koch International Classics, but I suspect the disc was deleted long ago. I think that Telarc also issued a recording of Prayers of Kierkegaard but I’ve not heard it. I do hope that Naxos will give us new versions of these fine, neglected works in due course.

The present disc is something of a pot-pourri, including three choruses extracted from Barber’s operas and given here with piano accompaniment; arrangements – by the composer – of three of his solo songs; and his own choral arrangement of the ubiquitous Adagio. The remaining ten tracks are original choral works. I have to say that I don’t think a great deal is gained by removing the three operatic choruses from their original contexts, though the chorus from Vanessa is attractive and the tenor solo it contains is nicely taken here. Nor am I completely convinced by the song arrangements. The one that seems to work best is Heaven-haven. Perhaps that’s because Barber arranged it for unaccompanied voices. In the case of the other two songs the piano parts have been retained – and they sound to be largely unaltered. The quirky accompaniment to The Monk and his Cat is a delight but I feel that the piece is a more witty creation as a solo item.

As for Sure on this shining night, well I wish with all my heart that Barber had not made this arrangement. The original song is one of the greatest of all twentieth-century art songs. In this arrangement the sopranos and tenors sing the melody in a kind of canon while the altos and basses contribute what I can only call filling-in harmony. All the directness of the original is lost and, for me, this is a surprising lapse of taste on Barber’s part.

Turning to the original choral works on the disc, we find some fine music. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, with which the programme opens, is an austere, arresting piece for the unusual combination of four-part male choir and three timpani - the optional brass parts, added later by Barber, are not included here. At the other end of the programme is the a capella piece, God’s Grandeur, a very fine setting for mixed choir of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem. The Ormond College choir do both pieces well and I also enjoyed their renditions of the two pieces that constitute Op. 42, especially the gravely beautiful Twelfth Night. They also bring a pleasing intensity to the lovely, austere Dickinson setting, Let Down the Bars, O Death while the purity of the young female voices is appropriate for The Virgin Martyrs.

However, listening to the disc right through I began have some doubts about the singing itself. The choir is composed of young, fresh voices and that’s something I usually enjoy and enjoyed up to a point here. However, I came to feel that the prevailing choral tone is rather white and it lacks depth and richness in the lower voices. That became particularly apparent in the case of Agnus Dei. Actually I started to make a comparison to check on the tempo. In Douglas Lawrence’s hands the piece seems to fly by in under six minutes. Maybe the Corydon Singers recording (Hyperion) is a bit too much of a good thing at 9:50. Far more satisfying is the performance by The Handel and Haydn Society Chorus which lasts for 7:11 – and, interestingly, takes almost the same time as the Endellion Quartet’s recording of the original string quartet version (Virgin Classics). I’m afraid Lawrence’s tempo is too fleet for the music to make its proper effect but in any case I do wonder if his young singers could have sustained a more spacious speed. By comparison with their peers on the aforementioned Avie disc their singing seems to lack body. I think the recording engineers could have helped by putting more warmth and bloom around the voices – perhaps in a different venue?

This CD is something of a mixed bag both in terms of the music and the performances. Admirers of Samuel Barber, among whom I number myself, will want it, of course, but for the general collector there are other Barber discs that are more essential purchases. The notes are satisfactory but the lack of texts is regrettable, despite the generally clear diction of the choir.

John Quinn

see also Review by Michael Cookson

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