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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Prayers of Kierkegaard for soprano, chorus and orchestra op.30 (1954) [17:48]
Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)
Cantata Profana (The Nine Enchanted Stags) for tenor and baritone, chorus and orchestra (1930) [19:41]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Dona Nobis Pacem for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra (1936) [32:16]
Carmen Pelton (sop) (Barber, RVW); Nathan Gunn (bar) (Bartok; RVW); Richard Clement (ten) (Barber; Bartok); Nannette Soles (mezzo) (Barber); Patricia Nealon (sop); Pamela Elrod (mezzo); Sean Mayer (ten); William Borland (bar) (Bartok)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw
rec. 15-17 Nov 1997, Symphony Hall, Woodruff Performing Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia. DDD
TELARC CD80479 [71:00]

I was drawn to this disc by the Barber which is accorded a splendidly detailed recording with no loss of stunning impact. I soon came to appreciate what a fine conspectus this offers of mid-20th century choral-orchestral music.
The Barber has not had many recordings. The only one I can recall is the one by Andrew Schenck on Koch 3-7125-2H1 dating from the late-ish 1980s. That was coupled with another neglected vocal work by Barber, his orchestral song-cycle The Lovers. The four movements have a majestic tread and a transcendently carolling choral line. This rises at the close to a swelling orison and a fade into ecstatic silence. It is in another class to the Albany recording.
From some fifteen years earlier comes the Bartok - again not a commonly encountered work. In this case it is sung in English translation. The writing is brusque and brutally pastoral. It is sometimes redolent of Orff and of the colossal sound-blocks of Stravinsky in Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms. The story of the seven brothers out hunting and transformed into stags is recounted in verse laid out in three parts. Like all the sung words for this disc the texts are printed in full in the booklet. The singing is smooth, precise and well coordinated. It has the same aftertaste as the singing in Mercury's recording of the Howard Hanson Lament for Beowulf.
The Vaughan Williams is well enough known and has been recorded at least once previously by American forces. Indeed that first recording by Maurice Abravanel with Blanche Christensen as the soprano and William Metcalf the baritone was my initiation into this masterly work. Pelton is superb throughout. Here she has that bell-clear quality - in Agnus Dei and The Angel of Death -  also to be heard from Sheila Armstrong in the Boult EMI recording. I am not sure that Shaw's choir has quite the right apocalyptic quality brought to bear by Abravanel and Boult. They give a virtuoso performance notwithstanding. As the work proceeds they create and become caught up in the wild up-draught of the music yet retain word definition across very complex cross-cutting textures. Listen for example to the Old Testament ferocity in Beat, Beat Drums! Reconciliation is well done by the orchestra but Gunn is too tremulous to be ideal. On the other hand he is magnificently sturdy in The Angel of Death movement. The Dirge for Two Veterans just misses the mot juste, becoming a disturbing shade quicker than the ideal. The Dirge was also superbly set by Holst – try to hear the version with the Baccholian Singers on EMI.  No-one but no-one has achieved the controlled, velvety hush and sincerity arrived at by the Atlanta forces when in the final minutes they sing Dona Nobis Pacem. The sing the words as if they really mean them.
Three grand choral works of the mid-20th century - superb in the Barber and Bartok; a shade less so in the RVW.
Rob Barnett


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