Following on from recordings of English music, the enterprising Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir turns its attention to American music and the work of Samuel Barber (1910-81). Original choral music forms a relatively small part of Barber’s catalogue, so a good deal of the music here focuses on arrangements, some more successful than others but all made by the composer, and so their inclusion is more than justified.
Of these hybrid pieces, by far the most successful are the Two Choruses from Anthony and Cleopatra. Although now sadly more remembered for the circumstances surrounding its disastrous premiere that plunged the composer into a depression from which he never recovered, the opera does contain some wonderful music. These Two Choruses, along with most of the music on this disc, are deceptively demanding for any choir, but are performed with great ardour and intensity and are well-supported by pianist Ben Kennedy, who manages to make light of the dense accompaniment. Slighter, charming, but still tricky is Under the Willow Tree, taken from Barber’s successful first opera Vanessa.
The other transcriptions come off less well – I much prefer the first, solo, versions of the vocal settings. ‘The Monk and his Cat’ (from Hermit Songs), through no fault of the choir, is heavy-handed (or pawed), much too clunky and a great deal of the text and gentle wit is lost in SATB version. Sure on this Shining Night (one of the great Art-Songs of the twentieth-century) and Heaven-Haven gain nothing at in their revised guises.
It has long been assumed that Barber made the choral version of his iconic Adagio for Strings for the money! There at least half-a-dozen other versions (including one unbelievably for Clarinet Choir), but none have the impact of the original. The long lines and slow tempo make what became the Agnus Dei a tough sing for even the most accomplished of choirs and it is virtually impossible not to make the climax sound harsh – and which happens here, unfortunately. Paul Spicer doesn’t take the ‘adagio’ aspect too literally – indeed his tempo verges on the brisk, but it is the only way to make it work at all!
Although this release doesn’t claim to be a complete collection, one assumes that it is, covering as it does student pieces – a rather effective part-song for male voices and piano, The Moon, and three early, rather worthy and academic-sounding Motets using words from the Book of Job.
From the other end of Barber’s career we have two of his very best choral settings The matter-of-fact entitled Two Choruses – the first ‘Twelfth Night’ (setting a text by Laurie Lee), is performed particularly well, whilst ‘To be sung on the water’, uses a text from American poet Louise Bogan and seems to provoke the BCCC to take on an American accent! The two-page ‘Let down the bars, O Death!’ (sung at Barber’s funeral) may be the simplest piece to sing but it is also incredibly touching in its understatement. The three-section Reincarnations has a madrigalian lightness of touch and together with the brief Ad Bibinem cum me Rogaret ad Cenam, Barber’s homage to his publisher, provide welcome light relief to what is a collection of rather melancholic music by this most reflective of composers.
The strongest performance of all is saved for the most unconventional piece, A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, for male voices and timpani. The men of the BCCC, perhaps a little reticent elsewhere, excel themselves in this cruelly demanding work setting a poem by Stephen Spender, written in memory of a soldier killed in the Spanish Civil War. This raw, emotional and anguished martial dirge in this blistering account of it is alone worth the price of the CD.
The BCCC has tough competition in this repertoire – not least from top-class professional choirs from the UK (Polyphony) and the US (Conspirare), but holds its own with remarkable skill. Which fact, together with the inclusion of a good booklet note by Daniel Galbreath, complete texts, and the high production values associated with SOMM, makes this Barber issue an easy recommendation.