Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
An American Romantic
Twelfth Night, Op. 42, No. 1 (1968) [3:56]
To be sung on the water, Op. 42, No. 2 (1968) [3:19]
The virgin martyrs, Op 8, No. 1 (1935) [4:16]
Let down the bars, O death Op. 8, No. 2 (1936) [2:17]
Reincarnations, Op. 16 (1937-1940) [10:56]
A stopwatch and an ordnance map, Op. 15 (1940) [6:24]
Sure on this shining night, Op. 13, No. 3 (c. 1968) [2:34]
Agnus Dei, Op. 11 (1938/1967) [8:55]
The Lovers, Op. 43 (1971) (version for chamber chorus and orchestra (2011) by Robert Kyr (b. 1952))* [34:01]
Easter Chorale, Op. 40 (1965) (version for chamber chorus and orchestra (2011) by Robert Kyr) [3:05]
*David Farwig (baritone)
Conspirare Company of Voices
*Chamber Orchestra/Craig Hella Johnson
rec. September 2011, Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Indiana. DSD
English texts and French and German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 807522 [79:44]

This SACD contains several arrangements of music by Barber and, oddly, it’s the ones by the composer himself that I find least successful. As I’ve commented before in these pages, Barber’s vocal arrangement of his celebrated Adagio for Strings as Agnus Dei doesn’t really work. One key reason is that the tessitura sometimes stretches the voices, especially the sopranos, uncomfortably. The members of Conspirare are equal to its challenges but I prefer to hear the music in either of its original string versions. Sure on this shining night is my favourite Barber song and a great one. Indeed, I’ll go further and say that it’s one of the great art songs by any twentieth century composer. However I don’t really like Barber’s arrangement of it for SATB choir. It’s much better when sung by a single voice. Furthermore, in the solo version Barber lets the piano have the last word; in the choral version for some reason he decided also to involve the singers at the end. However, if you don’t share my reservations about these arrangements then be assured both performances are excellent.
The other short vocal pieces also come off very well though once or twice - in To be sung on the water, for example - the words were not always ideally clear, even when I was following the texts in the booklet. This seemed to be more of an issue with the ladies’ voices and so it cropped up again in The virgin martyrs, which is scored only for female voices. However, that’s not a huge flaw when set against some very good, well blended and fine-toned singing overall.
The chief interest in this release lies in the arrangements by Robert Kyr of two of Barber’s scores, arrangements which were made for and at the request of Craig Hella Johnson for Conspirare. One of these, Easter Chorale, is a fairly short but nonetheless effective piece but the arrangement of The Lovers involves a much more substantial work. The Lovers is a late work and, as Robert Kyr comments in a note, it derives from a difficult time in Barber’s life. Not only was he trying to recover from the acute disappointment of the failure of his opera Antony and Cleopatra but also his long relationship with Giancarlo Menotti was deteriorating. For The Lovers, which was commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Barber turned to the poetry of the Chilean, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), choosing nine poems from Neruda’s 1924 collection Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair. These are set in an English translation by Christopher Logue and W. S. Merwin. The Lovers is scored for baritone solo, SATB choir and a substantial orchestra. Collectors may know the work from the live recording made in 1991 by the late Andrew Schenck with Dale Duesing and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Koch International 37125-2) though I’m not sure that recording is still available; I suspect it isn’t. Obviously, Schenck used Barber’s original scoring.
In making his arrangement Robert Kyr has left the vocal parts completely unaltered. However, he’s reduced the very full orchestration substantially and his scoring calls for just 15 players - single wind, brass and strings plus percussion, harp and piano/celesta. This arrangement works exceptionally well. The choral forces are also reduced - there are some three dozen singers in Conspirare, far fewer than the Chicago Symphony Chorus musters - and the end result is a much more intimate piece with far greater clarity in the textures. That serves Barber’s music and Neruda’s sensual, not to say erotic, texts very well. The Margaret Hillis-trained Chicago choir sings very well, as you’d expect, but not only is theirs a much fuller sound but also they seem to me more mature-sounding and the fresher, leaner tone of the professional members of Conspirare suits rather better the emotions expressed by the young Neruda. Thus, for example, in the third poem, ‘In the hot depth of this summer’, I find the Chicago ladies sing with rather too much vibrato; as a result it’s not easy to pick out the words.
The work calls for a baritone soloist, who sings three of the poems. The soloist on this new recording, David Farwig, is a member of Conspirare and he sings very well. He has a fairly light voice and he sings with admirable clarity. His third solo, ‘Tonight I can write’ is particularly effective. However, it has to be said that the greater experience of Dale Duesing shows and though Farwig is by no means put in the shade he’s not as characterful as Duesing. In the Chicago recording Duesing is on particularly fine form in ‘Tonight I can write’ and he has the benefit of the rich and expansive Chicago Symphony to accompany him. Though in many ways I prefer the tautness and clarity of the Kyr arrangement there are bound to be trade-offs and there’s no denying, for example, that the last number, ‘Cemetery of kisses’ is a Big Statement in the Chicago performance and one misses the rhetorical power in the slimmer scoring.
The Lovers is a considerable score and well worth hearing. Robert Kyr’s arrangement doesn’t supplant the original - such was not the intention - but the smaller forces required may encourage more performances and I’m completely convinced by it. In fact you could say that we now have two works for the price of one!
Performances throughout the programme are exemplary, the recorded sound is excellent - I listened in conventional CD format - and the documentation, which is in English, French and German is first class and beautifully laid out. This is an important disc for all devotees of Samuel Barber’s music.
John Quinn  

An important disc for all devotees of Samuel Barber’s music.