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Recordings

My Name is Barbara
17 Mar 2006

My Name is Barbara

Barbara Bonney’s discography is extensive and wide-ranging, including opera and oratorio, as well as lieder recitals from Mozart and Mendelssohn through the major Romantics to Zemlinsky.

My Name is Barbara

Barbara Bonney, soprano, and Malcolm Martineau, piano.

Onyx Classics ONYX4003 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

In English she has recorded two volumes of Purcell songs, as well as a lovely recital for Decca in 1998 of American art songs: Sallie Chisum remembers Billy the Kid, which included works by Copland, Barber, and Argento, and the title work commissioned from André Previn, who accompanied her on that disc. Her recent recital disc with Malcolm Martineau, My Name is Barbara, could be considered a follow-on to that disc, in that it also includes works by Barber and Copland, Quilter’s “Seven Elizabethan Lyrics” (echoing the “Six Elizabethan Songs” of Argento on the earlier disc), and a work by a composer who has also made a name as a conductor, in this case Leonard Bernstein. To these are added sets by Griffes and Britten, offering a satisfying selection of major composers of English-language art songs from the first half of the twentieth century.

The most striking contrast between the 1998 recital and this one is that the delicate clarity of Bonney’s voice has given way to a sound with a richer vibrato (heard somewhat in the Barber Hermit Songs on the earlier disc), which serves her very well here in the sonorous colors of Griffes’ Three Poems of Fiona Macleod, the word-painting in Aaron Copland’s Four Early Songs, and the Op. 13 songs of Samuel Barber. Particular admirers of that more bell-like sound are most likely to miss it in the coloratura passage of Britten’s “Let the florid music praise,” which is performed with perfectly good breath control, intonation, articulation, and energy, but has a warmer sound in which some of the detail is not as readily apparent. Another notable difference is that Bonney’s English diction has evolved such that some diphthongs (for instance in “clouds”) sound distorted to me. With the increased vibrato it can also be a little harder to understand the texts than it was on the earlier disc, where every word was crystal-clear, so the texts included in the CD booklet are welcome.

The program itself has a satisfying symmetry and progression. In each half of the recital a set of songs by a British composer is followed by two sets by American composers. The order is roughly chronological by date of composition, although Bernstein’s 1943 I Hate Music precedes Barber’s 1940 Four songs, op. 13. The first three sets date from the first quarter of the twentieth century, while the last three sets were all composed in or within a few years of 1940. We are drawn in gently by Roger Quilter’s skillfully tasteful and harmonically rich settings of seven Elizabethan poems, mostly anonymous and fairly simple in their language. Bonney’s performance of these songs is quite effective, bringing out the simple and gently haunting melody of “The faithless shepherdess” and beautifully floating the more complex phrases of “By a fountainside.” With Charles Griffes’ Three poems of Fiona Macleod, we move at once to a more primitive past evoked by the texts, a product of the early twentieth-century Celtic Renaissance movement, and a more complex musical future informed by Impressionism. In addition to the warm sonority mentioned above, I found an almost hollow sound in her low register particularly effective in “The rose of the night”. Like Griffes, the composer of the next set, Aaron Copland, studied in Europe, but even these four early songs of his sound more American than those of Griffes, although two of the texts have a kind of parallel exoticism. “My heart is in the East”, by the composer’s friend, Aaron Schaffer, is in the voice of a Sephardic Jew exiled from the Promised Land, and regretting the fact that it is under “Arab’s bond”. This is followed by “Alone”, which is a translation of a text written in Arabic by the Scotsman John Duncan, who went to live among Arab nomads to escape an unhappy love affair, and wrote love poetry in Arabic to the Arab woman he eventually married.

From here we make a clear step into the modern with Britten’s On this island, which sets five rather unsettling poems by W. H. Auden. I particularly like “Nocturne”, with extended phrases that alternate ascending arpeggios and gradual coasting back down to the starting pitch, rather like the slow breathing of a sleeper. Bonney’s voice moves smoothly up and down the registers in this song, resting solidly in the low register as on a single pitch the dangers to the sleeper are enumerated (from “traction engine” to “revolting succubus”). I only wish that the high pitch at the climax of the final up-and-down pattern could float more exquisitely (instead it just seems to grow thinner).

We recross the Atlantic to the simpler texts and tricky rhythms of Bernstein’s I Hate Music, a piece that is often given to young singers with good musicianship and vivacious personalities. Bonney’s richer sound adds an interesting maturity to this set, in which the ten-year old person speaking (after announcing that “my name is Barbara”) makes the discovery that she is “a person too”. The final set of songs is Barber’s Opus 13, which includes the very famous “Sure on this Shining Night” and ends with a “Nocturne”, to a completely different text from the “Nocturne” in the Britten set, with a restless accompaniment which, rather than imitating sleep itself, evokes a night of sleepless energy.

More information, including sample excerpts and purchasable MP3 downloads, can be found on the Onyx classics website here.

Barbara Miller

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