BARBER The Lovers THOMPSON Frostiana
In a lovely piece of programming, Ron-Dirk Entleutner and the young musicians of the Landesjugendchor Sachsen and the Jugendsinfonieorchester Leipzig here pair the hot sensuality of Samuel Barber’s The Lovers with the cool innocence of Randall Thompson’s Frostiana. Two iconic American choral cycles give these youth ensembles plenty of expressive scope but their potential isn’t always fully realised in these performances.
Although both works are staples of American concert programming, neither is particularly well served on disc, making this new recording a bit of a missed opportunity. The folk-simplicity and ingenuous sweetness of the Thompson suits these singers (aged 16 30) far better, but it’s a shame Robert Frost’s beautiful words are all but lost in diction that’s blowsy and diffuse, failing to drive the crisp rhythms of ‘A Girl’s Garden’ forwards, and never quite finding the climactic warmth and power of ‘Choose something like a star’.
The choral weaknesses are particularly galling given the quality of the orchestral playing from the Jugendsinfonieorchester Leipzig. There are some glorious wind solos in the Thompson – the heat-haze of the clarinet in ‘The Pasture’, the cheeky flute bird-calls of ‘Come in’. The composer’s own recording with Exultate (also using the work’s orchestral arrangement) remains the benchmark.
Much the more sophisticated work, Barber’s The Lovers matches the frank eroticism of Pablo Neruda’s verse in mature musical gestures that demand a broad palette of vocal colours. Craig Hella Johnson’s superb choir Conspirare released the work in a new chamber arrangement (Harmonia Mundi, A/12), and it’s interesting how much greater a depth of sound the group achieves, even with smaller forces. This new account is just a bit chaste, backing away from the music’s confrontations and climaxes when the musicians should be pushing through. Baritone soloist Martin Hässler is, however, excellent. His ‘Body of a Woman’ is roughly, briskly sexual – only highlighting, by contrast, all that the rest of this performance is sadly not.