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Samuel Barber's Collected Choral Works / The Esoterics

Barber / Esoterics / Banks
Release Date: 08/28/2012 
Label:  Terpsichore   Catalog #: 1110  
Composer:  Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

It’s not easy to warm to Samuel Barber’s choral music. Perhaps it’s the near-absence of melody in most of the works (what melody there is seems to be an accident of the harmonic structure). And the harmony itself can be quirky, jumping suddenly off the track and then back on again, then off in another direction—interesting and attention-getting and sometimes seeming more mannerism than musical necessity. The texts can be challenging for vocal setting—Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s grandeur”, for instance—and Barber’s conceptions often are equally challenging for the listener as well as performer (most of these works are not easy to sing). There is not a lot of beauty in this music; rather the composer takes a more objective, dispassionate Read more approach to his material, and we come away aware of the craft but not necessarily moved by it.

Of course there are some exceptions, including perhaps Barber’s most famous piece, which was not originally a choral work, nor was it initially created in the form for which it’s best known. This of course is the Adagio for Strings, originally the slow movement from a string quartet, and here in its voice-killing choral setting to the text Agnus Dei, where singers are expected to duplicate the very long, sustained lines and often extremely high registers easily managed by players of stringed instruments, but that can strain a voice to the breaking point. It’s a challenge for any choir, even the best professional ensembles. Barber’s best-known and oft-performed song, “Sure on this shining night”, is another exception, with its strong melody and sturdy, flowing rhythm and ingratiating harmony.

But for the most part the majority of Barber’s choral music has not found its way into the ranks of the best-loved repertoire, and probably for that reason it’s rare to find a disc devoted solely to these works. So if you do happen to be a Barber fan, or one who for completeness’ sake desires such a collection, this program from the Seattle-based choir The Esoterics, which claims to include “all of Barber’s works for unaccompanied voices (with scores published by G. Schirmer)”, is so far the best you will find. The ensemble singing is polished and technically solid, exemplified in the clearly articulated, rhythmically exciting opening of the first of the Reincarnations, “Mary Hynes” (sound clip). Among the best of the performances on the disc is the ever-strange but cooly engaging little drama A stopwatch and an ordnance map. Originally for men’s chorus and timpani, here it’s done with voices alone, assigning some strong and very accurate basses to the role of the timpani—and it actually works. A somewhat similar effort to render the piano part on Sure on this shining night with just voices is not so successful.

Unfortunately, the recording cannot receive a top recommendation because of disappointing sound. Recorded in a church, the overly bright, unkindly resonant acoustic gives undue focus to the upper voices and adversely affects balance and blend. It’s not hard to listen to by any means, but it really could have been better, and considering all the work that went into this project—not to mention the fact that such collections of Barber’s choral music are so few—it’s too bad that a more suitable venue couldn’t have been chosen or different engineering decisions couldn’t have prevailed. Nevertheless, Barber aficionados should check this out; the performances are really fine.

David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1.
Twelfth Night, Op. 42 no 1 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1968; USA 
2.
To be sung upon the water, Op. 42 no 2 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1968; USA 
3.
The Virgin Martyrs, Op. 8 no 1 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935-1936; USA 
4.
Let Down the Bars, O Death, Op. 8 no 2 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935-1936; USA 
5.
Heaven-Haven (A Nun Takes the Veil) by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1961; USA 
6.
Agnus Dei, Op. 11 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1967; USA 
7.
A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1940; USA 
8.
Reincarnations, Op. 16 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1940; USA 
9.
Motetto by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: circa 1938 
10.
Easter Chorale by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1964; USA 
11.
Happy Birthday, Sam Barber by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
12.
The Virgin Martyrs, Op. 8 no 1 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Esoterics
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935-1936; USA 

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