This CD preserves a landmark recital in which Barber accompanied Price in a program of art songs at the Library of Congress, which was given on 30 October 1953 in honor of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Part of that recital was the premiere of Barber's Hermit Songs, op. 29, a work commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress.
This recital was broadcast at the time and some may know the performance of the Hermit Songs found on this release from its earlier release on CD (RCA Victor Gold Seal 61983). Yet the concert is available in its entirety only with this recording, which includes the other music Price and Barber performed then: Quatre Poèmes de Paul Eluard by Francis Poulenc, La Voyante by Henri Sauget, along with several other songs by Poulenc, Fauré, and Barber. The choice of music for the recital is excellent, with Sauget's La Voyante ("the medium," which evokes Menotti's opera of the same name) emerging as a particularly memorable cycle. In 1953 American modernism had not yet taken its cues as strongly from serialism as would occur in the next decade. At this point, modern American composers like Barber benefited from their strong association with French modernism as embodied by the composers found in this program.
The recording shows the young Price as a nuanced interpreter of song. Those who know Price from her work in opera should appreciate the details she brings to this recital of almost chamber-music intensity. The evenness of register and clarity of line, two qualities of Price's voice throughout her career, are clearly present in this relatively early recital. At this early in her career Price approached the music for this recital with assuredness and finesse, which adds to the attraction of this CD. At the same time, Barber shows himself to be a fine interpreter of his own music and also a memorable accompanist. Barber does not merely attend to the details of his own works at the expense of the others, but rather treats the other composers in the program in the same meticulous way.
In addition to Leontyne Price's recital, this recording includes a program of songs that was broadcast on 26 December 1938 (through the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia) in which Barber accompanies himself. This recital shows the composer's own voice well, as he performs six folk songs and six Lieder, roughly half an hour of music. As much as a recording like this may be regarded as a curiosity of sorts with the composer as performer, the fine singing and playing by Barber shows the high-level of musicianship he conveyed.
This CD is a wonderful addition to the series of Great Performances from the Library of Congress. The series already includes some remarkable chamber music, as found in the first CD in the series, a program by the Budapest String Quartet with George Szell as pianist and other memorable performances. The prospect of other such releases makes this a series worth watching. For now, this release of these performances by Price and Barber merits interest as an historic recording and also for the high quality of performance it preserves.
James L. Zychowicz