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22 Mar 2009
Songs by Samuel Barber
Among the impressive contributions to the American song literature of the twentieth century are works by Samuel Barber (1910-81), whose efforts in this genre reflect his own musical training as a singer, as well as the influence of his aunt, Louise Homer, whose professional relationships put her nephew in contact with other vocalists of the day.
Among Barber’s contributions are a number of sets of songs from throughout his career, works that are heard periodically in performance and available in various recordings. This selection by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake offers a fine cross-section of Barber’s songs on a single CD and collects his set of Hermit Songs, Op. 29; Mélodies passagères, Op. 27; Three Songs, Op. 10; Dover Beach, Op. 3; and several individual songs. Lacking, of course, Knoxville 1915, Op. 24, since it was intended for soprano and orchestra (albeit performed by tenor), this recording of Barber’s song is a rich selection which captures the composer’s major efforts in the genre in interpretations by two of the finest performers of the day.
The spiritual aspects of the Hermit Songs implicit in the texts require the clear and fervent execution Finley and Drake offer. With texts from various sources, primarily translations of Medieval verse, the turns of phrases in modern English are nicely supported by Barber’s music. The plaintive quality of “The Crucifixion” reflects simultaneously the vocal idiom of an earlier time and yet the dissonant idiom that Barber used to punctuate the music contributes to the welcome complexity of the song. Julius Drake’s approach to the accompaniment of this song and the one that succeeds it in the recording, “Sea Snatch” by making the pianistic touches work well with Gerald Finley’s sensitive interpretations of the works. Such details emerge aptly in Finley’s delivery, not only in shorter settings, like “St. Ita’s Vision” (translated by Chester Kallman) but also in one of the more extended songs, “The Monk and His Cat” (translated by W. H. Auden). One of the particularly moving performances is that of “The Desire for Hermitage” (translated by Seán O’Faoláin), which, as the culmination of the cycle, serves as a kind of summary of the entire set.
The sometimes angular settings of English-language translations receipt apt settings by Barber, but his craft at composing the French artsong is apparent in the set of Mélodies passagères, which are based on verse by Rainer Maria Rilke. These sometimes enigmatic poems bear rehearing for the nuances of the texts, and Finley’s approach invites returns to the songs to capture some of the details he and Drake bring to the music. “Un cynge” (“A swan”) receives its appropriate delicacy, a quality implicit in the music and effectively rendered in this performance. The subtle accompaniment works well with Finley’s sinuous approach to the text. Yet the entire set merits attention for the well-placed details that beg for a repeated hearings not only of the music, but also this compelling performance.
In addition to these pieces, the performers include a selection of Barber’s earlier songs on this recording. Some of the music is quite familiar from vocal recitals of various performers, as is the case with “Sure on Thdsis Shining Night,” a work that receives fresh treatment from Finley and Drake. The pacing of the vocal line and accompaniment are key to the interpretation found here, with model phrasing between the strophes of the verse. Equally impressive is Barber’s early masterpiece, Dover Beach, which involves the Aronowitz Ensemble. Part of the select vocal repertoire which involves chamber music, like Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“The Shepherd on the Rock”), Dover Beach retains a special place in vocal literature. The maturity that Finley brings to the work is clear from the start, and as the piece progresses, the performance demonstrates an incredible level of involvement.
In this piece and the others on the recording, Finley shows himself to be a major interpreter of Barber’s music. Just as he is impressive on stage in such a powerful role as Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, Finley is also commanding in the more intimate solo vocal literature. This is a fine addition to recent recordings of twentieth-century song, and also an impressive contribution to the discography of Samuel Barber.
James L. Zychowicz