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Samuel Barber: Two pieces, Op. 42 – Two choruses, Op. 8 – Reincarnations, Op. 16 – A stopwatch and an ordnance map, Op. 15 – Sure on this shining night, Op. 13, No. 3 – Agnus Dei, Op. 11 – The Lovers, Op. 43 – Easter Chorale, Op. 40 (arr. R. Kyr)
David Farwig (baritone) Conspirare, Company of Voices, Craig Hella Johnson (conductor)
Recorded at Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Indiana (September 2011) – 80’
SACD harmonia mundi HMU807522 – Booklet with essays and translations in English, French, and German

American composer Samuel Barber is best remembered for his ubiquitous Adagio for strings. It is a piece that seems to go hand in hand with indescribable tragedy and it may be somewhat unfortunate that Barber is best known for this piece as his music, especially as performed on this disc, contains such a variety of colors. Craig Hella Johnson and his impeccable ensemble perform some of Barber's most exquisitely sensual music, some familiar, some not. In the hands of Conspirare, "romantic" seems a gross understatement.

Right from the outset in Twelfth night, Conspirare creates dazzling colors. Their attention to detail is exemplary. Their diction is a joy. They sing with a natural precision that doesn’t sacrifice any intimacy of the music. Barber's ravishingly beautiful The Coolin' is the most effective example. The relative simplicity of the homophonic movement sounds casually sincere in the ensemble's hands. The clean and exacting attack on "Stay with me..." at the dramatic height of the piece is breathtaking and worth the price of admission. A stopwatch and an ordinance map, augmented by timpani, is firmly sung by the men of the ensemble and is a curiously modern and dark piece of music.

It is a relief to hear that the two most famous pieces, Sure on this shining night and Agnus Dei, based on Barber's Adagio, are both sung with undeniable freshness. The former relies on a simplicity of precision where consonants are precise, not clumsy. The sopranos sing with a cool, youthful sound that soars through the piece. The Agnus Dei is downright shocking. Johnson does an impressive job of building the piece, expanding its shape and dynamics gradually. The anguished climax is an achievement of unbelievable force and stamina. Conspirare did both pieces a great service in these recordings by reminding the listener of how honest Barber’s compositional style is in these pieces without resorting to sentimentalism.

The disc concludes with two pieces arranged by composer Robert Kyr for Conspirare. The Lovers, a 35-minute work, here scored for a chamber orchestra, is confident, unique and, unabashedly erotic. The poetry of Pablo Neruda leaps off the page, coaxed by the silky, clean textures Conspirare is able to produce. Baritone David Farwig has an intimate yet mature sound and his delivery in “Tonight I can write” is devastating in its unrequited longing. The concluding piece, Easter Chorale seems an odd addition, but is a fine reminder of Barber’s pervasively passionate style throughout all the genres of his music.

As fine as the the material and performances are on this disc, I am afraid the recorded sound is uninviting. Given that this is the same label, recording engineer, and location as Conspirare’s last SACD album, “Sing Freedom”, this is surprising. I had to get out that album and re-listen to portions just to make sure I was not hearing things. The sound of this album is closely recorded and lacking in warmth. The marvelous sopranos seem to be the most detrimentally impacted. Details are apparent but with little air or space around them. The surround mix sounds most impacted in this way and some listeners may prefer the stereo track instead. In general, it is not a show-stopper and redbook CD listeners may not notice too much of a difference, but given Conspirare’s prior recording success, the sound here is disappointing. Thankfully, the music of Samuel Barber and Conspirare’s committed performances still triumph.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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