GMCD 7145 – Choral and Organ Works by Samuel Barber

Cambridge University Chamber Choir, Timothy Brown – Director, Jeremy Filsell – Organ

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American Record Guide – Nov/Dec. 1998 Issue

Barber’s compositions for voice are a significant part of his work. In that category are some absolute choral gems – most of them not well-known, which makes this disc welcome.

The three Reincarnations are on texts of James Stephens after Irish poetry. They are quite dissimilar in style and extremely difficult to sing. “Under the Willow Tree” (from Vanessa), is more familiar as a solo song – but quite effective as a choral waltz. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map is accompanied by timpani. The text is a chilling protest from a surviving partner in a relationship severed by death. That is quickly followed by the Agnus Die (the familiar music of the Adagio for Strings), a glorious combination of text and music where the rising line and harmony lifts the spirit and exudes a spirit of peace.

The two choruses from Antony and Cleopatra have introspective texts and splendid close harmonies for all parts. 12th Night is similar in style but with religious text by Laurie Lee, full of hope from the birth of the Christ child. “The Monk and His Cat” and “Sure on this shining night” are more familiar as solo songs but are wonderful in choral arrangements. Dickinson’s text is set with romantic, close harmony in “Let down the bars, O Death”. With the part writing, Barber paints a clear picture of the waves in Louise Bogan’s “To be Sung on the Water”. The three organ works are enchanting in the performance by Jeremy Filsell, particularly the tongue-in-cheek Happy Birthday.

The performances are exquisite. Sometimes the lack of vibrato in the women’s voices sounds strident, but otherwise the choir’s blend, intonation and diction are as perfect as humanly possible. Brown’s phrasing and sense of timing fit these pieces like a glove. I could not imagine a more perfect match of performers and music.

BBC Music Magazine October 1998 Issue

Choral music formed a notable part of Samuel Barber’s output, and this useful collection reveals a host of enchanting miniatures, full of harmonic interest and variety. Above all, it confirms Barber as a wonderfully vital, warm and inspired setter of the written word.

Two evocative choruses from his opera Antony and Cleopatra, the first with a shy soprano solo, the second a lament with gorgeously strummed piano opening, are beautifully handled. The ingeniously contrived “A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map” with its striding rhythms, shows off the Cambridge men’s voices to fine effect; and they manage the well-sustained long lines of the famous Agnus Dei just as tellingly.

The girls’ sound, if not always quite as crisp and mature, brings a shy charm and warmth to every item. “The Coolin”, from the Irish-inspired triptych Reincarnations, Auden’s “The Monk and His Cat” and Barber’s lovely setting of Laurie Lee’s poem “Twelfth Night” all evidence this. So too does a touching pair of Renaissance-imbued pieces: Helen Waddell’s “The Virgin Martyrs” and Emily Dickinson’s “Let down the bars, O Death”. Thomas Ad├Ęs makes the piano accompaniments gleam, and Jeremy Filsell concludes with three short Barber organ pieces, notably the reflective, medieval French-inspired “Wondrous Love”.
Roderic Dunnett



The OrganVol.77 No 305 Page 156

Although Samuel Barber is most widely known for his popular orchestral work, the Adagio for Strings, he had already become an organist by the age of twelve. Regrettably, he composed little for the organ, but his Wondrous Love, Variations on a Shape Note hymn Op34 and Toccata Festiva Op36 deserve a wider audience.

On this Jeremy Filsell plays three short pieces by Barber on the organ of Exeter College, Oxford, concluding with a 45 second version of Happy Birthday. The majority of the CD is devoted to Barber’s choral works which I suspect are unknown to most of us. The Cambridge University Chamber Choir and their Director Timothy Brown, are to be warmly congratulated upon their perspicacity in searching for, finding and bringing to our attention so much excellent choral music by a somewhat neglected composer who died only a few years ago.

By comparison with a CD reviewed earlier the sleeve notes are extremely detailed, in three languages, and contain the full text in English for each choral item. Full marks for this. The standard of choral singing is beyond reproach and I am sure that, although Barber’s idiom may involve the listener in some effort, this CD will show Samuel Barber to be in the front rank of choral composers.

The piece The Monk and the Cat taken from an 8th or 9th century Irish translation intrigues me for it is entirely reminiscent of Sebastian, the cat of great character presently owned by MP of this journal!

I didn’t know that! – Edit.

Gramophone – August 1998

Barber’s Agnus Dei is none other than our old friend, the Adagio (the present a cappella arrangement dates from 1967). Other gems here include the Op. 42 Diptych of Twelfth Night and To be sung on the water, the radiant setting of James Agee’s Sure on this shining night and A stopwatch and an ordnance map (which features an arresting timpani accompaniment).

Timothy Brown draws a strongly communicative, albeit occasionally raw response from his singers.

Classic CD August 1998

It’s often said that Samuel Barber was at his best as a miniaturist, and there are some delightful, beautifully sung miniatures here: a charming waltz-song from his opera Vanessa, for example, or the striking setting of Laurie Lee’s Twelfth Night. But the best pieces in this collection are rather bigger (not necessarily in duration) than miniatures: the famous Adagio for strings, of course (heard in Barber’s own choral arrangement as an Agnus Dei), but also two deeply-felt choral laments from the opera Antony and Cleopatra.

The grave, martial setting of Stephen Spender’s A stopwatch and an ordnance map (for chorus and drums) also comes into this category; so, despite their simple brevity, do the moving settings of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Heaven-haven and Emily Dickinson’s Let down the bars, O death. The choir show off their technique and precise pitching in the short cycle Remembrances.

The three organ pieces at the end of the programme are much more than encores: a quiet meditation on Silent Night, some intriguingly adventurous variations on the hymn Wondrous Love and a tiny prelude on Happy birthday to you which manages to be both celebratory and affectionate.
Michael Oliver