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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
The Lovers, for baritone, mixed choir and orchestra [30:11]
Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
Frostiana, for mixed chorus and chamber orchestra (1965 version) [27:40]
Martin Häβler (baritone)
Saxony State Youth Choir
Youth Symphony Orchestra of Leipzig/Ron-Dirk Entleutner.
rec. 2016, location not provided

This CD came about as a result of a visit to the Northwestern University in Chicago by the Youth Symphony Orchestra of the Johann Sebastian Bach Music School at Leipzig in 2014. Whilst there, they performed Samuel Barber’s late cantata ‘The Lovers’ - a setting of poems by Pablo Neruda. Having thus been introduced to the music and performed it with an American choir, the orchestra found a German Choir – the Saxony Youth Choir, with which to perform it in Germany. It was such a success that the decision was taken to produce a CD of the piece and to couple it with ‘Frostiana’ – a setting of poems by Robert Frost by the doyen of American choral composers – Randall Thompson.

I am pleased to be able to report that the young performers, both choral and instrumental are on top form and Martin Häβler, the baritone in the Barber piece sounds to be in very good voice. The recording is very well balanced between voices and orchestra and can pack a considerable punch when called upon to do so. We are also presented with a very well produced booklet containing full texts, and so you have the makings of a desirable CD
Now to the music, firstly the Barber cantata; it dates from 1971 some five years after the poor critical reception of his grand opera Anthony and Cleopatra. This event, taken together with the breakup of his long-standing relationship with the Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti, drove Barber into depression with accompanying creative blocks and an excessive consumption of alcohol. Compositionally, he was regarded by leading critics as being a romantic anachronism who refused to bow to the de rigeur expectation of ‘squeak and groan’ serial ‘music’.

Well, it is certainly true that Barber was not a serial or twelve-tone composer, but his musical style had evolved over the years, so that anyone approaching ‘The Lovers’ in the hope of hearing a vocal version of the Violin Concerto will be disappointed. Whether he consciously or unconsciously altered his style to accommodate critical opinion, I cannot say, but there is no doubt that ‘The Lovers’ is quite a spiky piece. Admittedly, the spikes have points that are rounded off, but the lyricism is quite austere and orchestral explosions occur when the poetry inspires them. The orchestral prelude is quite a good indication as to what is to follow, and when it came to the poems Barber did not avoid the sexually explicit sections. The title of the first is ‘Body of a Woman’ - sung by the lover - and is quite detailed. In fact I could have done with more appropriately lush music here; there are times when lyrical astringency is not really appropriate. As I mentioned, the choral singing is very fine (Germans singing almost accent-less English) and the baritone does the same.

Whilst I do not find myself particularly drawn to Barber’s late style, it does at keep one’s attention and reveals a composer of spectacular imagination. I am afraid that I cannot say the same of Randall Thompson. The choral work recorded here reminds me very much of the sort of recent British music that is played on Classic FM’s ‘smooth classics’ – pieces designed not to challenge the ear of the listener and which are so bland in melodic utterance that they are little more than musical gloop. I can probably do no better here than to quote the critic of the New York Herald Tribune of November 1933 when reviewing Thompson’s second symphony:

“Mr Thompson has really succeeded in keeping the music simple, unforced and unaffected. He has made use of popular idioms, melodic and rhythmic, and his manipulation of these is civilised and craftsmanlike. He has not hesitated at times to be obvious, he has not strained…… he has not hesitated to sound quite different from Schoenberg.”

These are comments which apply to this cantata just as well. I expect that this very fine young German choir had little difficulty in singing this particular piece of Americana; it would certainly have taxed them far less than anything by Schoenberg.

So, if you are after an excellent recording of the Barber rarity there is no reason to avoid this disc, especially if you also feel inclined to investigate a piece of relaxing and undemanding American choral music to counteract the sometimes tart Barber.

Jim Westhead



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