This release is dominated by the presence of Samuel Barber, a man whose lyrical music set the standards by which almost all 20th century art song can be judged. Over half of his output was involved with choral or vocal music of some kind, and his songs display craftsmanship of a supremely high order. He was also a very practical man, and made arrangements for various groupings of singers of many of his choral pieces. Among the most notable is the version of the slow movement of his String Quartet later orchestrated for strings called Adagio. His reworking into an Agnus Dei is risky and bold—voices do not have the same legato and ability to sustain the way strings do, especially when taken at a wonderfully measured tempo like Polyphony does here.
Bernstein’s Missa Brevis, amalgamated from his choral work The Lark, came at the suggestion of Robert Shaw, and was done for him in honor of his retirement in 1988 from the directorship of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The piece is concise, rhythmical, and pointedly medieval in sound, hinting of the Bernstein exploration of superimposed harmonies but unlike in many other ways from most of what we now associate with his sound world.
Thompson’s Alleluia is one of the most revered choral pieces ever composed in America, and recordings are numerous. It was originally commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky who wanted a joyous fanfare, but when Paris fell to the Germans in 1940 the composer instead countered with this deliberately bittersweet yet naively hopeful song of delicious sentimental propensities. Fare Well was written near the end of his life for three school choirs in Long Island. New York, to a memorial style poetic setting by Walter De La Mare.
Copland didn’t spend a lot of time with choral settings, but what he did produce can’t be ignored easily. His Four Motets, each on texts from the Old Testament, was produced while still a student with Nadia Boulanger, and he was unsure as to their value when published as he had not achieved what he felt was a recognizable style. Today we might disagree; though they are bereft of much of the later linear and sparse harmonic sequences, you can still detect a nascent elegance that would assert itself fully in the next ten years as he vaunted into his early modern style.
Polyphony is a fabulous group, and Stephen Layton has done wonders with them over the years. Its excursion into the realm of Americana shows a depth of understanding and complete mastery of the idiom that differs in many ways from the modern choral compositions of the British school. Hyperion gives them a glowing recording done at All Hallows, Gospel Oak in London that resonates with depth and splendor. Definitely a keeper.