BARBER Choral Music
In 1981 Menotti told me that he disapproved of Barber’s transcription of the famous Adagio into a choral piece and said he did it only to make money. Look at the situation now – it’s the most powerful of all his choral works, but it’s very demanding. The gold standard has been set recently by Polyphony under Stephen Layton (Hyperion, 8/14): he takes nine minutes but with Paul Spicer it’s all over in six and a half. It is unfair to start with the weakest performance from the young Birmingham Conservatoire team because there are valuable things on this new CD. Anyone really interested in Barber’s choral music will want to hear the prentice works as part of the picture, showing Barber’s origins. Some are pallidly academic, to suit his conservative teacher at the Curtis Institute, but the setting of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s ‘God’s Grandeur’ is a discovery. There also two choruses, with piano, from Barber’s controversial opera Antony and Cleopatra.
Spicer has rightly realised that the much-repeated word ‘beautiful’ in ‘To be sung on the water’ would sound better in an American accent. ‘A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map’ sets a strange poem by Stephen Spender, stemming from a Spanish Civil War tragedy, for male voices and timpani. Early performances found tuning to timpani a problem; various instrumental additions were tried but the original is now standard, with no problems here. The choir is well balanced and manages high notes with aplomb, although the low bass-lines are not so clear. Nevertheless, this is an attractive release.