"And we will drink our fill..."
These are the first two strophes of Samuel Barber's "The Coolin," one of the three songs in his choral song cycle "Reincarnations." A friend recommended that I listen to this song, someone who had fond memories of singing it but who had yet to hear a satisfactory recording of the work. Given the enthusiasm, even exuberence, that she displayed regarding the singing, I thought it important enough - and only fair - that I seek out the best possible performance of the work. So I ended up acquiring three CD's, all containing "The Coolin" (and two containing the full set of "Reincarnations" songs). Having listened now to all three, it is easy for me to state that this CD contains the hands-down winner. And to further add that the other two Barber songs in the cycle really don't measure up to this one, so the absence of them on this release is no great loss to me.
Set to a love poem by the early-20th century Irish poet James Stephens, "coolin" is a lock of hair (or "curleen") that grows on a young girl's neck, an expression seemingly equivalent to "sweetheart." Stephens goes on to say, "I sought to represent that state which is almost entirely a condition of dream wherein the passion of love has almost overreached itself and is sinking to a motionless languor." Barber's beautiful setting of the poem reflects that aim totally, and the singing of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Chorus captures the passionate languor perfectly.
The album - billed as "a choral journey through the twentieth century" and meant to spotlight the excellence of the chorus - is interesting both in terms of what it includes and what it overlooks, in terms of choral classics. The opening track contains a truly fine performance of John Tavener's "Song for Athene" (made famous as the recessional at Princess Diana's funeral although written some years earlier upon the death of a friend of Tavener). If you want a fine performance of this particular Tavener work but are not sure whether you want an album full of his works, look no further.
There are three songs in French (by Debussy, Badings - actually a Dutchman - and Poulenc). For me, the Badings song ("La nuit en Mer," from his "Three Breton Songs" of 1948) is one of the true "sleepers" in this album, a work I'd hardly expect to run across under normal circumstances and a beautful one at that.
Needless to say, there is a lot of "Americana" here as well, including an arrangement of Aaron Copland's harmonization of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" for chorus and piano, an Alice Parker setting of "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal" and a simply drop-dead-gorgeous setting of "Shenandoah" by J. Erb (no first name provided in the notes). Two fine inclusions are a wonderful setting of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" (breathtaking in its harmonic daring) and the evergreen "Make Our Garden Grow" from Bernstein's "Candide" (the album "closer").
In addition to the Tavener work, the century's end is well-represented by Allen Jay Kernis ("How the Soul Speaks to God"), Morten Lauridsen ("O Love, Be Fed With Apples While You May" from his "Mid-Winter Songs") and Conrad Susa ("Winds of May" from his "Six Joyce Songs").
This is an eclectic collection, as individual for what it does NOT include as for what it does. For example, there is not a single song by Charles Ives (who wrote well over 150 of them, many of them beautiful), or by William Schuman (another prolific songwriter). England is represented only by Tavener, and therefore there are none of the fine songs written by John Rutter and Benjamin Britten. And there is nothing to represent 20th-century Scandanavia. (For example, though Einojuhani Rautavaara is mentioned in the booklet notes and has written many fine songs, none are included here.) Nevertheless, I hardly think that choral fans will be disappointed with the selection provided (chosen, I would guess, by both the chorus itself and by its conductor, Vance George).
Vance George certainly has the proper bona fides (mentoring under both Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis, herself a Shaw acolyte), and he has developed the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to an enviable level (as can be demonstrated by the fine support they provide for a number of orchestral/choral works conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas). Clearly, this chorus must number among the top half-dozen currently supporting major orchestras in the U.S.
The recorded sound quality is mostly excellent, although a few of the tracks don't seem to be representative of the usual Delos mastery of capturing sound in difficult acoustical environments. But, then, Davies Hall (the home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra) is quite well-known for its tricky acoustics.
The booklet notes - by Laura Stanfield Prichard - are good for what they are. The organization of the notes follows neither the strict chronology of the works nor the actual playing order. But the notes do a reasonable job of describing the works themselves, save for any mention whatsoever of Jerome Kern or of the arranger who provided the drop-dead-gorgeous setting of "All the Things You Are."
But, despite these nitpicking minor criticisms of mine, if you are - like me - a choral junkie, you'll want this album in your collecction. For all the good reasons I've highlighted above. And most especially for Sam Barber's "The Coolin."