by Tim Pfaff
In music as in the other arts, reception and reputation are fickle birds, as the case of gay American composer Samuel Barber shows. His considerable body of compositions found advocates among the biggest names in the business – Toscanini for the Adagio for Strings (at this point perhaps the work Barber is best known for), Horowitz for the Piano Sonata – but he had equally powerful detractors, in academia and among the critics.
Their charge was that his music was, if not exactly outmoded, overly, belatedly romantic. Yet it is precisely that quality in his music – perhaps its most genuine – that won him audiences and Pulitzer Prizes during his lifetime and, in a present-day milieu more attuned to romanticism, neo- or otherwise, than to the astringencies of modernism, safely secures his place in the repertoire, his vocal music especially.
Little surprise then that out music director Craig Hella Johnson's chorus, Conspirare, calls its newest CD Samuel Barber: An American Romantic (Harmonia Mundi). Barber's compositions for chorus span the greater part of his long career, and although Conspirare's CD is not a "complete works," it comes close enough.
The works selected certainly show all the facets of Barber's writing for the genre, and Conspirare goes so far as to open up Barber's choral oeuvre by presenting two of the large-scale major works, The Lovers and Easter Chorale, in newly composed settings calculated to win them greater exposure. Everything about this sterling CD says labor of love.
Not, as the CD lets you know from the first track, that all the music is easy listening. "Twelfth Night," a setting of Laurie Lee's disturbing poem about the birth of Jesus "from this dark lung of winter," is severe and harmonically dense – building steadily in dissonance – over a stabbing dotted rhythm. Conspirare gives it a hair-raising reading, allowing it to unfold in one relentless arc from the opening line, "No night could be darker than this night," to its repeat at the end of the song.
Immediately following is its companion piece, from 1968, at first glance a work of the starkest contrast: "To be sung on the water," to a poem by Louise Bogan. Lilting, lapping (its words speak of a vow of love spoken in a rowboat), it is, however sensual, anything but lulling, and full of sinister cross-currents, a work of hushed, almost forbidden beauty.
The pair of works was written two years after the disastrous premiere of Barber's opera Anthony and Cleopatra, composed for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House, which drove the composer deeper into depression and the sauce. These two small pieces don't seem to be trying to prove anything, yet they show Barber at the peak of his compositional craft.
Opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber's longtime partner, helped Barber revise the opera, but their own declining relationship and Barber's ever-deepening plunge into alcoholism provide part of the backstory for The Lovers, a 10-movement work set to selections from Pablo Neruda's Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair for baritone, chorus and large orchestra. On Conspirare's invitation, Robert Kyr has recast the piece for a smaller instrumental ensemble – an orchestra of 15 – in the hopes of making it more widely performable. (Performances of Barber's original are rare, his far more famous Knoxville: Summer of 1915 , for orchestra and solo voice, edging them out.)
Without changing a note or a rhythm of the vocal writing, Kyr has produced what is essentially a new composition of the orchestral music, tighter, truer, and expressive in a more particular, drama-centered way. While making keener sense of it, Kyr's version does not make the experience of The Lovers any less grueling.
Female voices don't even appear until the third movement, "In the hot depth of this summer," and then provide only fleeting relief. Emotional desolation takes the fore with "Sometime," superbly sung by baritone David Farwig, and it only builds in more wrenching outcries until the final movement, "Cemetery of Kisses."
The work takes the combined forces of Conspirare deeper into the realm of the dramatic than usual, and the musicians to a one respond individually and keenly. Their remarkable ensemble – surely this is the best chamber chorus in America – is on evidence throughout the disc; here it just crawls farther out onto the ledge.
The sublime Easter Chorale, composed for the 1964 dedication of the central tower in Washington's National Cathedral, also rescored by Kyr for more general performance contexts, brings the disc to an uplifting close. This generous sampling of Barber's other choral writings ranges from his own re-settings of his solo songs (a radiant "Sure on this shining night") to his last re-composition of his signature Adagio, as an Agnus Dei. The versatility Conspirare shows in the performance of music by a single composer is astonishing.