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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Dover Beach Op.3 (1931) [8:25]
Serenade Op.1 (1928) [9:42]
Three Songs Op.2 (1927-1934) [4:47]
Three Songs Op.10 (1935-1936) [7:23]
Nocturne Op.13 No.4 (1940) [3:09]
Sure on this Shining Night Op.13 No.3 (1938) [2:17]
Three Songs Op.45 (1972) [6:57]
String Quartet Op.11 (1936) [18:20]
Despite and Still Op.41 (1968) [10:15]
Thomas Allen (baritone) (Dover Beach, Songs); Roger Vignoles (piano) (Songs); Endellion String Quartet (Dover Beach, Serenade, Quartet); Eric Cutler (tenor); Bradley Moore (piano) (op. 41)
rec. July 1990, Blackheath Concert Halls, London (Dover Beach, Serenade, Quartet); April 1993, St. George’s Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol (Songs);.May 2003, Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London (op. 41)
EMI CLASSICS 6952322 [71:29] 
Experience Classicsonline

This is a reissue by EMI of the 1994 Virgin Classics disc “Dover Beach” (7243 5 4503320), with one change: here the song cycle Despite and Still Op.41 is given in its entirety, though by new performers. The disc in part comprises songs with piano accompaniment and as for the rest, pieces for string quartet. Dover Beach Op.3 unites these two worlds, being a song accompanied by string quartet. The moods vary, but the prevailing atmosphere is of melancholy, painful but subdued, typical of Barber. It is for attentive solitary listening, relishing the gems one by one, pausing. You’ll find more melodies here than were considered decent in twentieth century classical music. Alas, no song texts are provided.

The disc opens with Dover Beach, a surprisingly mature piece for a 21-year old composer. Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem of the night sea, pebbles on the shore, and human solitude starts small, but rises to ethereal heights. This is not an easy text to set, but young Barber got it right. It may well be that solitude in a world that “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” was well-known to the composer.

Thomas Allen’s voice is noble but distanced; he cedes an almost equal role to the quartet. His narration comes more from the head than from the heart. Even the culmination is aristocratically restrained. The performance by Thomas Hampson and the Emerson Quartet on DG (the complete songs, with Studer and Browning) is more vulnerable, emotional and, as a consequence, personal. The Emerson’s lower strings are deeper and Hampson’s voice has more juice. In the culmination, his cry “My love” is a desperate, anguished plea, very personal, romantic in every sense; the last sentence about clashing armies is also pictured more convincingly. Hampson is on the verge of being operatic, while Allen clearly comes from the world of Winterreise. And, sorry to admit, Allen’s arrrticulated Rs are like a pebble in a shoe.

The Serenade Op.1 is a lovely piece that started its life with four movements. Later Barber decided to withdraw the finale and apparently destroyed it. In my opinion, the third part does not serve perfectly in the role of finale - it leaves a feeling of “to be continued” like Beethoven’s scherzos. But since the piece is entitled a Serenade, rather than a Quartet, this sounds legitimate. The Endellions play with great care and evident love. The first movement starts with a tender introduction followed by an agitated Allegro growing out of the same theme. The plaintive second movement is a lament full of falling seconds. The third is a dance of Mendelssohnian spirits, merry and light, although the melancholy is not buried too deep. The Serenade also exists in a version for string orchestra. Although the notes are the same, the character is changed: instead of a private conversation we have… well, a serenade. So, the orchestral arrangement suits the name better, but the original version is more intimate.

The better part of the String Quartet Op.11 you might know as “Barber’s Adagio”. But there is much more to it. The first movement, agitated and solemn in turns, is masterfully built on a set of short, memorable motifs. It tells a story with episodes and characters, just like Liszt’s Sonata. Then comes the great Adagio. If you haven’t ever been touched by its orchestral version, go away now. Otherwise, the chamber version is just as beautiful. Losing the cosmic breadth and the shimmer of endless strings, it gains in intimacy and sincerity. At the same time it loses the World War II connotations and becomes a story of personal grief. The third movement comes as a surprising continuation of the first, with the same motifs. Indeed, it was initially the coda of the first movement.

For comparison, I listened to the Tokyo Quartet (“A Way A Lone”, RCA 102470) and liked their interpretation more. Their sound is more vibrant, the recording is closer, and they build a more interesting structure - as if they treated the Adagio as just one of the episodes in the course of the quartet. The Endellions place more accent on the Adagio, with the other two movements becoming an ornate frame around it. This smells of marketing. In general, their playing is pure, but somewhat ascetic.

The songs from the earlier period (Op.2, Op.10 and two of Op.13) are done fairly well, but the tempi tend to be fast. For example, they are consistently faster than in the Studer/Hampson album (DG). Considering that most songs are miniatures, with just two or three verses, this does not allow the music to have its full impact. The Daisies goes jumping through its morning-O, instead of wandering. With Rue My Heart Is Laden does not have the time to reach your brain and pierce your heart, as it should do and as it does in Studer’s interpretation. On the other hand, Bessie Bobtail is very impressive here, absolutely frightening. James Joyce’s fantasies of Op.10 are evocative, with rich piano accompaniment taking almost an equal role in the duet. The army in No.3 is vivid, and the cry of despair is shattering.

These are followed by two of what are in all probability Barber’s finest songs - Nocturne and Sure on This Shining Night from Op.13. Nocturne is another “night music”, brother to Dover Beach and grandpa of “The Phantom of the Opera” - for better or for worse. It is magnificent, with an unforgettable culmination, and Allen’s voice fits it perfectly. Sure on This Shining Night has another of Barber’s great melodies. By the way, the composer orchestrated these two songs, adding colors and perfumes, and the result is pure magic: try to seek it out.

Three Songs Op.45 are Barber’s last published collection, and a fitting farewell to the genre. The opening song - haunting, enigmatic Now have I fed and eaten up the rose - is done very sensitively. But in A Green Lowland of Pianos, Allen and Vignoles miss half of the fun: their pianos just graze in the mire, while Hampson and Browning’s pianos frolic and chase each other’s tails! In the last song, O Boundless Boundless Evening, the tendency towards faster tempi finally pays off. The structure of this long and winding melody is clear, and the lines of the poem are discernible. Allen and Vignoles do it in 2:54. Hampson and Browning - in 4:17, and manage to lose me completely.

The last song collection on the disc is Despite and Still Op.41, which on the old Virgin disc was represented by one song, Solitary Hotel. Here we have the complete cycle done by tenor Eric Cutler and accompanied by Bradley Moore. The songs are very memorable. There is a startling resonance between No.3 and No.5, while No.4 apparently fulfilled the yearning of one tune - from Dvořák’s Dumky - to become a tango! The mood of the poems can be described by the words lonely - tired - old. And NN1, 2 and 5 are truly personal, you hear Barber’s voice, his anguish, his fatigue. That’s why Eric Cutler’s ardent and youthfully strong presentation, however beautiful, seems to miss the mark. But it is very well done indeed, with voice coloring and proper accents. I wish Allen did this cycle while Cutler had the early ones.

If you already have the Hampson/Studer collection, you may want to buy this set if you think that Hampson puts too much of his heart on the sleeve, and vote for more restraint. But for me, the DG set is unsurpassed - although their Boundless, Boundless Evening is far too boundless. A big disadvantage with the EMI disc is the absence of lyrics: the clear diction helps, but Barber usually set non-trivial texts. Overall, the program is well planned, but some parts are trumped by other recordings.

Oleg Ledeniov


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