Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Reincarnations, Op. 16 [7:37]
Easter Chorale (1964) [2:50]
God’s Grandeur (1938) [6:40]
Let down the bars, O Death! (1936) [2:12]
Two Choruses from Antony and Cleopatra (1968) [6:37]
Two Choruses (1968)
Twelfth Night [4:12]
To be sung on the water [2:31]
The Monk and his Cat (1961) [2:25]
Under the Willow Tree (1961) [3:09]
A Stopwatch and an Ordinance Map (1940) [5:59]
Motetto from the Book of Job (1930) [8:59]
The Virgin Martyrs (1935) [3:35]
The Moon [2:06]
Sure on this Shining Night (1961) [2:29]
Ad Bibinem cum me Rogaret ad Cenam [1:50]
Heaven-Haven (A Nun Takes the Veil) (1961) [1:54]
Agnus Dei (1967) [6:37]
Birmingham Conservatoire Brass Ensemble; Ben Kennedy (piano); Matthew Firkins (timpani)
Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer
rec. 2014, Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire
Texts included

Paul Spicer and his excellent Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir have been responsible for several fine discs already (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). I’m delighted to find their attention now turning to the choral music of Samuel Barber. This distinguished American composer had a great affinity for the human voice – he was a very decent baritone himself – and a discerning selector of texts. Those traits come out repeatedly in his art-songs and they are much in evidence in this collection of choral pieces.

Spicer has trained his young choir well. There are 26 singers in the group (9/5/6/6) and they sing with great commitment and no little skill. Occasionally the basses sound a little short of tonal depth – these are young voices, after all – but the only real concern I have is that, to my ears at least, there is some evidence of edge in the soprano tone, especially at higher volumes. However, there’s a great deal to admire in these performances, as I’ve found from previous experience of this choir on disc.

A few of the pieces were new to me. I don’t recall hearing Ad Bibinem cum me Rogaret ad Cenam previously. Like the Reincarnations trilogy it’s believed to date from the late 1930s. Whilst it’s good to hear it I don’t think it’s an especially memorable piece. Much more interesting, I find, are the three Motteto, which are settings of texts from the Book of Job. In his useful notes Daniel Galbreath observes that this set of pieces “is clearly a young composer’s exploration of styles.” I wouldn’t disagree but the writing is expressive and already the responsiveness to words, which was to be such a Barber hallmark, is well in evidence.

A few of the pieces that Paul Spicer has chosen are Barber’s own re-workings of earlier solo songs. The Monk and his Cat is one of the Hermit Songs, Op. 29, which Barber wrote in 1952/53. The music itself is thoroughly engaging. However, despite the skill with which it’s performed here I don’t really think it works in this format. In this arrangement one vocal part is assigned the melodic line at any given time while the other parts ornament it and fill out the texture. Sometimes they do so wordlessly, sometimes they articulate the same words as we’re hearing sung to the main melody. Frankly, it’s cluttered, especially since Barber retains the piano accompaniment. Much the same can be said of Sure on this Shining Night and that’s even more of a pity since that is one of the very greatest art songs of the twentieth century. Just to reassure myself I went back to the splendid DG anthology of all the Barber songs, curated by John Browning and sung by Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson. As it happens, it was Studer who sang both of these songs in that set. What a joy it is to hear Barber’s marvellous original inspirations sung without the regrettable accretions of his choral arrangements.

However, Barber’s arrangement of a third song, Heaven-Haven (A Nun Takes the Veil) seems to be the exception that proves the rule. This, like Sure on this Shining Night, comes from the Four Songs, Op. 13, composed between 1937 and 1940. The music lends itself much better to a choral arrangement; it’s suited to the homophonic treatment that Barber gives it and perhaps it’s not without significance that this is the only one of the three arrangements in which Barber dispensed with the piano accompaniment. The Birmingham Conservatoire singers make a splendid job of it.

His most celebrated choral arrangement of an earlier work is the re-imagining of the Adagio for Strings as Agnus Dei. Once again, I strongly prefer the original but a good performance, such as this present one, can often weaken my resolve.

The standout performance on this disc is the account of Barber’s extraordinary A Stopwatch and an Ordinance Map. This mundane, even prosaic title – the title of Stephen Spender’s original poem – belies the intensity of the subject, a poem describing the death of a combatant in the Spanish Civil War. And what a masterstroke on Barber’s part to use timpani to accompany the singers! Here the singing is first class and the timpani playing of Matthew Firkins is marvellously incisive – and recorded with tremendous presence by the engineer, Paul Arden-Taylor. This is a gripping performance.

The excellence of that performance is closely matched by the choir’s rendition of Let down the bars, O Death! This solemn, melancholy Emily Dickinson setting, which was sung at Barber’s own funeral, is sung with great feeling by Spicer’s choir.

Barber extracted some choral pieces from his operas. Under the Willow Tree comes from his 1958 opera Vanessa while two other choruses were rescued from the much less successful opera Antony and Cleopatra. The first of these, On the Death of Antony is for female voices. It features a prominent solo soprano part and I’m sorry that the soloist isn’t credited for she sings with great accomplishment. On the Death of Cleopatra is for full chorus. This is a tragic, grief-stricken piece and it’s sung intensely.

Most of the music on the programme is unaccompanied but six pieces require a piano and the accompaniments by Ben Kennedy are stylish. The Birmingham Conservatoire Brass Ensemble makes a sonorous contribution to Easter Chorale. Here Barber holds back the brass until near the end of the piece and that’s well judged because the brass thereby have much greater impact when they join in.

This is another most welcome disc from Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. As I’ve already indicated, the singing is very good and the repertoire choice is enterprising. Somm’s documentation is right up to the mark and the recorded sound is clear and present. More please.

John Quinn

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