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Samuel Barber: <em>Choral Music</em> (SOMMCD 0152)
24 Dec 2015

Samuel Barber: Choral Music

This recording, made in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music in June 2014, is the fourth disc in SOMM’s series of recordings with Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.

Samuel Barber: Choral Music

Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. Directed by Paul Spicer

SOMM Céleste SOMMCD 0152 [CD]

£11.00  Click to buy

The Choir, which comprises auditioned student singers (on this CD the arrangement is 9/5/6/6), has earned acclaim through their recordings for Regent Records and SOMM of music by Kenneth Leighton, James MacMillan, Ireland, Delius, Stanford and Howells — repertoire which reflects Spicer’s especial interest in 20th and 21st century British music. (Their disc of choral music by Herbert Howells, When first thine eies unveil (SOMMCD 0140), was Gramophone Editor’s Choice in December 2014.)

Samuel Barber, himself a talented baritone, wrote choral music throughout his career and the works on this disc span from early pieces from the 1920s through to choruses and opera extracts from 1968. The stylistic continuity, with regard to harmonic language and approaches to form and text setting, is notable; Barber’s essentially Romantic idiom may have been dismissed as ‘utterly anachronistic as the utterance of a young man of 28, A.D. 1938!’ by a letter-writer to the New York Times, but the composer stuck with it. (When asked whether a composer should write for himself of the public, he replied, ‘I write for myself and Helen Carter […] Mrs Carter once proclaimed that all American composers are dead except for Elliott. Well she’s the judge.’) But, the range of forms and genres — individual songs, motets, opera choruses, small and large-scale choral works, re-adaptations and instrumental transcriptions — is wide and appealing.

What is particularly striking is that taken collectively the works reveal Barber’s extensive knowledge of poetry and deep personal response to the selected texts. Daniel Galbreath’s succinct and informative liner notes cite a diary entry in which Barber professed that he spent ‘much more time looking for the poems than setting them’. He was specifically referring to his first group of choral works — a set of a cappella rounds (1927), of which ‘The Moon’, a setting of Shelley, was the only round to be revised as an independent piece with piano accompaniment (Ben Kennedy). The general low tessitura and steady, expansive piano chords evoke the text’s sense of mystery, and the choir swell through and shape the descending chromatic lines to convey a questioning tone. As throughout the disc, the voices are well-balanced and the part-writing is lucid.

Motetto on Words from the Book of Job is also an early work. In the neo-Baroque ‘There the wicked cease’, the contrapuntal entries are confident and the soprano line clear and strong. ‘Call now!’ has a madrigalian energy, though I find the basses a bit lacking in heft in the final two lines, ‘As the sparks fly upward, I would seek unto God.’ — the rising sopranos need a stronger counter-weight. The fullness of the homophonic textures of ‘Praise Him!’ captures the liturgical context well, while the individual lines are alert and lively.

Barber’s first published piece for chorus, ‘The Virgin Martyrs’ (1935), is scored for four-part a cappella women’s voices, and sets the medieval lyrics of the Belgian monk Sigebert of Gembloux (translated by Helen Waddell) which praise female martyrs. The undulating chromatic lines give the work a mystical quality and the fresh, youthful sound swells sonorously and beautifully as the ‘crowding maidens’ (Gertrude, Agnes, Prisca, Cecily, Lucy, Thekla, Juliana, Barbara, Agatha, Petronel et al) gather in ‘God’s company’. The tessitura of the short work is quite wide, and the penetrating soprano line has strong, warm support from the altos.

The disc contains two settings of texts by Gerald Manley Hopkins. God’s Grandeur (1938) shares the antiphonal grandeur of the Motetto (it was originally conceived as the third movement that work). Here, it begins with a thunderous homophonic proclamation that ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, before the second line, ‘It will flame out’, initiates wandering melodies that are passed between the voices, as the music acquires a spirit of joy and celebration. Spicer makes much of the contrasts of texture and feeling, though; the thinner textures suggest a more contemplative mood, and the basses’ slow-moving, sustained low notes serve as firm pedals for the explorations above. The renewed energy in the final stages persuasively conveys the certainty that ‘the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and ah! with bright wings’.

‘Heaven-Haven’ (1961) was originally a song for voice and piano (from Four Songs Op.13 of 1938) and its choral transformation seems to this listener to render the music overly heavy for the text’s austere sentiments, though it is sung with admirable focus. More successful is another of the Op.13 songs, ‘Sure on this Shining Night’ (also re-arranged in 1961), whose homophonic interpretations of James Agee’s reverential poetic lines sway beguilingly, propelled by the gentle, repeating rhythms of the piano accompaniment. The closing rallentando and diminuendo are sensitively crafted. There seems to be too much going in ‘The Monk and His Cat’ (1967) though, another of Barber’s re-adaptations, from the collection of Gaelic monks’ texts that form the Hermit Songs Op.29 (1952-53). The piano and voices are buoyant and bright, but we need less busyness in order to hear W.H. Auden’s text.

Barber’s melancholy strain is well represented on the recording. ‘Let Down the Bars, O Death’ (1926 — the same year as the string quartet which later yielded the Adagio for Strings) is a sombre chorale setting of Emily Dickinson’s eight-line verse. The work (which was performed at Barber’s own memorial service in 1981) begins with a muted invocation, but Spicer encourages his singers to expand majestically — the uneasy harmonies create an underlying restlessness — before the choral sinks back to a whisper. The text is clearly declaimed. This, like so many of the works on the disc, is a ‘miniature’ but the performance reveals the seriousness and intelligence that Spicer and the Chamber Choir bring these small-scale compositions.

‘A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map’ (1940) for four-part male voice choir and three timpani is a highlight of the disc. Stephen Spender’s memorial poem for a soldier killed in Spanish Civil War acquires an ever darker air of dread as the timpani’s opening drum call (superbly played by Matthew Firkins) initiates a disturbing parodic march. Firkins expertly varies the volume of the pounding tread — first drubbing, then retreating — and the sliding pitches which precede the Choir’s statement, ‘He stayed faithfully in that place’, are ominous. The piece closes with a sustained major chord and a final restatement of the ‘stopwatch’ motif — a fading reminder of horror. The music feels truly ‘modern’ and the singing is superb.

‘A Stopwatch’ was composed for the Curtis Institute Madrigal Chorus which Barber conducted from 1938-1941, as were the three Reincarnations Op.16, settings of seventeenth-century Irish literature as reinterpreted by the poet James Stephens. ‘Anthony O’Daly’, which tells of an Irish environmentalist unjustly accused of firing a gun at another man, is an emotionally charged outpouring of disbelief and loss in which the basses do well to sustain their long-held note before taking up the melody, their lines surging until music halts arrestingly on the word ‘grief’. Barber’s more gregarious side is represented by ‘Mary Hynes’ — a woman reputed to be the most beautiful in all of western Ireland! The singers trip lightly and warmly through the short lines, ‘She is the sky of the sun!/ She is the dart of love!’, slowing temporarily in the second stanza, then racing again towards the final floating image: ‘Walking towards you airily’. Spicer shows similarly sensitive appreciation of the text in ‘The Coolin’ (a nickname for a loved one drawn from the curly lock of blond hair at the nape of the neck), where the sweetness of tone conveys a languid mood, which is enhanced by the merest silence after the repetitions of the tender line, ‘And a lip to find out a lip’.

Alongside the rarely heard, there are more familiar works. The ‘Agnus Dei’ a ‘double adaptation’ of the second movement of the Op.11 string quartet via the Adagio for Strings, concludes the disc, but there is another, perhaps more interesting, instrumental adaptation, the ‘Easter Chorale’ (1964, originally for brass and timpani, with choral parts setting text by Pack Browning added subsequently) in which the Birmingham Conservatoire Brass Ensemble make a sterling contribution to the closing moments. The Chamber Choir’s full power and richness is evident in choruses (with piano accompaniment, sensitively played by Kennedy) from Barber’s 1968 opera Antony and Cleopatra; ‘On the Death of Antony’ also showcases a fantastic soprano solo (unattributed), while in ‘On the Death of Cleopatra’ the singers negotiate the challenging chromatic parts with skill, and the abrupt ending is dramatic and telling. Barber’s Vanessa is represented by ‘Under the Willow Tree’.

Another late work, Two Choruses (1968) begins with ‘Twelfth Night’ (1968), a setting of Laurie Lee’s anguished text in which Spicer goads his singers from undemonstrative, hushed tones to a tremendous climax at the birth of Christ, before letting the voices fall away into despair: this is another show-stopper on the disc. The second Chorus, ‘To Be Sung on the Water’ (to a text by American poet Louise Bogan), is similarly evocative: the peaceful repetitions of the male voices conjure the quiet lapping of a lake while the female voices find a restrained but clean, open sound, fitting for the rounded assonances of Bogan’s poetry.

This disc will bring much pleasure. Not all of the compositions would be deemed ‘first-rate’ but they are performed with unvarying commitment and expertise. The sound quality is good (engineer, Paul Arden-Taylor) and the liner notes contain helpful texts and translations. It’s good to have such a comprehensive collection of Barber’s choral music brought together.

Claire Seymour

Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, Paul Spicer (director), Ben Kennedy (piano)*, Matthew Firkins (timpani)+, Birmingham Conservatoire Brass Ensemble**.

Reincarnations , Op.16 (‘Mary Hynes’, ‘Anthony O'Daly’, ‘The Coolin’; Easter Chorale **+, ‘God's Grandeur’ , ‘Let down the bars, O Death!’, Two Choruses from Anthony and Cleopatra (‘On the death of Anthony’*, ‘On the death of Cleopatra’*), Two Choruses (‘Twelfth Night’, ‘To be sung on the water’), ‘The Monk and his Cat’*, ‘Under the Willow Tree’*, ‘A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map’+, M otetto on Words from the Book of Job, ‘The Virgin Martyrs’, ‘The Moon’*, ‘Sure on this Shining Night’*, ‘Ad Bibinem cum me Rogaret ad Cenam’, ‘Heaven-Haven’, ‘Agnus Dei’.

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