BARBER An American Romantic

Johnson unites two choirs for portrait of choral Barber

Author: 
Peter Dickinson
Barber Conspirare

Barber_An American Romantic

  • Twelfth Night
  • To be sung on the water
  • (The) Virgin Martyrs
  • Let down the bars, O Death
  • Reincarnation
  • (A) Stopwatch and an ordnance map
  • Sure on this shining night
  • Agnus Dei
  • (The) Lovers
  • Easter Chorale

This is very nearly the complete choral music of Barber, apart from extracts from his operas: with a generous duration of nearly 80 minutes there cannot have been room for A nun takes the veil. The vocal arrangement Barber made of his famous Adagio aside, his choral works are not well known.

These are exemplary performances and Johnson represents every nuance of Barber’s expression markings. The Adagio – arranged as Agnus Dei – naturally steals the show and there is no temptation here, as in some recordings, to hurry those endlessly sustained vocal lines. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, to a poem by Stephen Spender about a soldier’s death in action, is set for male voices with timpani – a fascinating curiosity which comes off better than the choral version of the popular ‘Sure on this shining night’.

But the major discovery is The Lovers, which Barber completed in 1971 to a commission from the Girard Bank of Philadelphia. They were a bit surprised when he chose the Chilean communist poet Pablo Neruda and even more so given the fairly explicit erotic texts. This story of a dying relationship seems to reflect Barber’s separation from Menotti. This is the first recording of Robert Kyr’s reduction of the full-orchestra score to a 15-piece chamber orchestra, which is totally successful. Without the extravagant demand for a large orchestra, The Lovers might have been as frequently performed as Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Now it emerges as a kind of American Winterreise. Like the rest of the CD, the performance, with Conspirare and baritone David Farwig, is excellent. Barber’s choral output now has the attention it deserves.

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