Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
An American Romantic
Twelfth Night [3:56]
To be sung on the water [3:19]
The virgin martyrs [4:16]
Let down the bars, O death [2:17]
Reincarnations [10:56]
A stopwatch and an ordnance map [6:24]
Sure on this shining night [2:34]
Agnus Dei [8:55]
The Lovers - New version for chamber chorus and orchestra by Robert Kyr [34:01]
Easter Chorale - New version for chamber chorus and orchestra by Robert Kyr [3:05]
Conspirare/Craig Hella Johnson
rec. September 2011, Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Indiana
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 807522 [79:44]
Conspirare is an American professional chamber choir who first came onto my radar with their excellent recording of the requiems by Howells and Pizzetti. They turn now to an album of music by one of the most famous American composers of the 20th century. One of the paradoxes of Barber is that everyone agrees on his significance, but to the wider public he is known for a very small number of works. Even those who know beyond the Adagio for Strings can probably name only a few things beyond the violin concerto. This disc reminds us that he was a very gifted choral composer. He had an undeniable gift for finding just the right harmonies, and his style fits a choir very well indeed. Conspirare are just the right group to remind us of this too. They have a lovely togetherness to their sound. Closeness of the harmony is clearly something they have worked on and the unity of their musical vision lends itself to interpretations of polished beauty.
Barber’s choral style carries lots of echoes of the English choral tradition. Listening to this disc it’s not hard to pick up echoes of the work of Peter Warlock or Benjamin Britten, and even more contemporary greats like Paul Spicer or Bob Chilcott. His fundamentally tonal style is spiced up by playful harmonic structures and moments of colourful chromaticism that give the whole a very distinctive edge. It’s also interesting that the poetry that he chooses to set is most often dense and complex, full of double meanings or different interpretations that are ripe for being exploited by the infinite possibilities of music. Twelfth Night, for example, is a richly nuanced response to Laurie Lee’s poem of regeneration and new birth, Barber’s music blending a subtle element of dissonance into the texture to match the poet’s unease about the meaning of the saviour’s birth. To be sung on the water pits the male voices against the female, the repetitiousness of the male line reflecting the pattern of oars on the water while the women sing the tune, and the two sides swap roles various times in a lovely piece of harmonic painting. The Virgin Martyrs is scored, appropriately enough, for female voices only, and is a mystical, slightly strange meditation on martyrdom, the oddness of some of the chords clashing with the elevated spiritual text. One of the most striking songs on the disc, A stopwatch and an ordnance map, sets Stephen Spender’s response to a violent death in the Spanish Civil War. The often eerie choral texture is offset by an obbligato part for timpani, made all the more strange by the constantly changing notes of the pedal timpani, giving the whole piece an eerie instability that is powerfully effective.
Let down the bars, O death is an intense miniature from the same stable as the famous Adagio for Strings and Agnus Dei. It was actually sung at the composer’s funeral, but in spite of its solemn text it speaks of death as a release and does so in chords of mysterious beauty. TheAgnus Dei itself is sung with a lovely view to the long line, though, to my ears at least, the tuning was prone to get ever so slightly out of sync at a few junctures. I’ve never quite been convinced by this work in its choral arrangement - to my mind the soprano line sounds overdone in the climax - but they make a good enough job of it here. Reincarnations sets a series of poems based on the Irish writer Anthony Raftery. Mary Hynes has a tripping lightness about it, a good echo of the poet’s affection for the most beautiful woman in the west of Ireland, and The Coolin’ is a more tender sort of love song. Anthony O’Daly, on the other hand, is a bleak meditation on the finality of loss, the basses holding the same note like a tolling bell for 40 measures while the upper voices seem to circle around one another in disbelief at the unjust death of the loved one.
The Lovers sets a series of love poems by Pablo Neruda, the same poet who so memorably inspired Peter Lieberson. Barber originally wrote them for chorus and 80-piece orchestra, but what we have here is a new version for chamber orchestra, devised by Robert Kyr. He writes in the booklet notes that his inspiration was to make the piece more approachable and more performable: it is, he writes, “one of the few American choral-orchestral masterworks of the twentieth century” and he hopes that the availability of a smaller version would make it more easy to mount in performance. I admit I haven’t heard Barber’s original, but Kyr’s arrangement works very well for me. The orchestral prelude is light and magical, the instruments weaving a spell in and out of one another and, once the songs themselves begin, the pairing of chamber choir and chamber orchestra seems to fit very well. Neruda’s poetry, with its almost dangerously erotic elements, inspires Barber to concoct ever more exotic harmonies which he uses to express the very depths of the complexity of human love and longing. In the hot depth of this summer is particularly magical, combining a hymn-like stillness with sensually erotic nature imagery. The solos are very well taken, and I also really liked Kyr’s arrangement of the Easter Chorale. Originally a massive brass piece written to consecrate the central tower of the National Cathedral, it here becomes a stately hymn which is accessible, and even intimate.
The performances are excellent, captured in a warm, friendly acoustic, and Johnson directs the choir with purpose and responsiveness. This is well worth a look if you’re interested in choral music.
Simon Thompson
Well worth a look if you’re interested in choral music. 

see also review by John Quinn