Samuel Barber: An American Romantic

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Samuel Barber
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: An American Romantic
WORKS: Twelth night; To be sung on the water; The virgin martyrs; Let down the bars, O death; Reincarnations; A stopwatch and an ordinance map; Sure on this shining night; Agnus Dei; The lovers; Easter Chorale
PERFORMER: Matt Tresler (tenor), Thomas Burritt (timpani), Faith DeBow (piano), David Farwig (baritone); Conspirare/Craig Hella Johnson

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Samuel Barber, a singer and a choral conductor in his younger days, wrote effectively and euphoniously for chorus. This well-presented disc offers a judicious selection of his unaccompanied choral music, including his adaptation of the famous Adagio for Strings to the text of the Agnus Dei, his atmospheric Laurie Lee setting Twelfth Night, and Reincarnations, his triptych on Irish poems. There’s also his tense setting of Stephen Spender’s wartime elegy A stopwatch and an ordnance map for male voices and timpani, and one of his choral arrangements of solo songs with piano accompaniment, the lovely Sure on this shining night. The 36 professionals of the American choir Conspirare sing with good tuning and clear articulation, their voices beautifully blended in a warm acoustic – though the lilt of the last two numbers of Reincarnations is jeopardised by slow tempos.

The main work here, though, is The Lovers, Barber’s powerful 1971 setting for chorus and orchestra of erotic poems by Pablo Neruda, in a new arrangement by Robert Kyr with an accompanying ensemble of 15 players. Craig Hella Johnson directs a sympathetic performance, with a good team of step-out soloists, led by baritone David Farwig. The reduced forces are a suitable match for the intimacy of the poems, and in a close recording the intense climaxes suffer no loss of impact. It’s worth trying to find Andrew Schenck’s premiere recording, with Chicago Symphony forces for Koch International, of the expansive original. But this slimmed-down version is a great deal more than a stopgap.

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Anthony Burton