SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Samuel Barber, an American Romantic – Twelfth 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 – Matt Tresler, tenor/ Thomas Burritt, timpani/ Faith DeBow, p./ David Farwig, bar./ Ch. Orch./ Conspirare/ Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi

What a welcome release to have The Lovers among us again—and the rest is just very tasty gravy.

Published on September 28, 2012

Samuel Barber, an American Romantic – Twelfth 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 – Matt Tresler, tenor/ Thomas Burritt, timpani/ Faith DeBow, p./ David Farwig, bar./ Ch. Orch./ Conspirare/ Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi

Samuel Barber, an American Romantic – Twelfth 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 (new version for chamber orchestra and chorus by Robert Kyr); Easter Chorale (new version for ch. orch. and chorus by Robert Kyr) – Matt Tresler, tenor/ Thomas Burritt, timpani/ Faith DeBow, piano/ David Farwig, baritone/ Chamber Orchestra/ Conspirare/ Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807522, 79:44 *****:

Samuel Barber is one of my favorite composers. His music is so highly crafted, with never a wasted note, and everything in his music is there for a reason; one comes away with the feeling that augmentation or diminution would destroy the whole, just as in Mozart. He struggles over every pen mark put to paper, and his scores even have the look of crafted perfection. His output was not huge but few others are so consistently full of high quality. He is romantic in that he never strays from real emotion but is also quite modern in that he strives to present his sensibilities in the harmonies and tonalities of his age; dissonance doesn’t threaten him but neither does he embrace it when a simpler solution proves as necessary and as elegant.

All of the selections on this disc are arranged by the composer with the exception of two which I will discuss in a moment. Most started life as songs but proved too valuable that the temptation to expand their audience via choir could not be resisted. They are beautifully rendered by Johnson and his marvelous Conspirare, who always bring a unique and physically palpable enthusiasm to everything they sing, while Harmonia mundi’s decision to record them in surround sound is surely an enlightened one.

But there are other recordings of this music that are quite valuable as well. In fact I would be remiss if I did not suggest the Naxos recording of the Ormond College Choir directed by Douglas Lawrence that contains all of this music minus The Lovers and adds a few songs as well, in standard sound but very nice price-wise. But it is precisely the inclusion of The Lovers that makes this release so valuable. The late Andrew Schenck’s 1994 recording of the work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was one of the highlights of that year, and indeed of that decade as well. Barber’s agonized and pseudo-erotic setting of Pablo Neruda’s tale of anguish and heartache in the realm of love created quite a storm when the Koch recording emerged, and rightly so–it is still, despite the accolades, the only recording of the piece available until now, and still the only recording of the original version. It is a stunner and is highly recommended. What is surprising is that no one has taken it up since. Well, now composer Robert Kyr has done just that, recreating the orchestration of the piece in a more modest chamber setting specifically for this recording.

By any measure it is a complete success, though those familiar with the original might be surprised. This is no mere reduction but a rethinking of the original. While not as oddly incongruous as, say, Hans Werner Henze’s setting of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, the modifications are noticeably different (now for 15 players) while remaining a fitting conformity to Barber’s initial concept. It does not, as Kyr says in the notes, “give a stronger presence to the sensuality and intimacy of Neruda’s visionary poetry”—Barber knew exactly what he was doing the first time around—but it also doesn’t detract from the power of the original, and so makes this arrangement fully “more playable and affordable” than the original; at least that is the hope. We shall see what happens.

This is a terrific release that deserves the widest distribution possible, and it’s nice to have The Lovers on disc again.

—Steven Ritter




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