This exploration of the vocal dimension of Barber's
music has been in the Sony catalogue for a decade - quite a survivor!
As Robert Cushman says in
his booklet notes, Barber came from a family
in which the vocal art was prominent. His
aunt was the mezzo Louise Homer (1871-1947).
Fischer-Dieskau is a mite mournful but Arnold's
Dover Beach is admittedly hardly a
bright subject. It would be welcome if some
company would record Maurice Johnstone's setting
for baritone and orchestra. Has anyone else
set the poem?
The Steber Knoxville is a pioneering classic
but I prefer Dawn Upshaw's Teldec version. It is a work that easily
worms its way into your affections - an operatic scena really and of
tellingly balanced emotional symmetry. Leontyne Price and the composer
premiered the Hermit Songs in 1953 and made this recording a
year later. These are well worth hearing and will appeal if you have
taken to Leo Smit's Dickinson songs or Finzi's Hardy or the songs of
Herbert Howells. Price is very clear and I defy you not to be won over
in The Monk and his Cat which lilts along with a Caribbean smile.
The settings are of Irish texts from the 8th to 13th centuries as translated
and adapted by Auden, Chester Kallman, Howard Mumford Jones and Sean
After such intimacy the hot up-blast of the orchestra
in the scena Andromache's Farewell comes as a voltage jolt to
the listener. There is an asperity and astringency about the music in
which Barber quarter opens the door to dissonance. Arroyo is in fully
blooming operatic voice and there can be no doubting that this is music
for a grand auditorium. Andromache already bereft of her husband, Hector
(her parting from Hector is charted by Bliss in Morning Heroes).
Here she bids farewell to her son Astyanax who is to be executed by
the Greeks. The music has that same tenderness, that same turbulence
and ambition that is to be heard in Barber's own Antony and Cleopatra
and Walton's Troilus and Cressida. Did Barber ever contemplate
setting Euripides Trojan Women - a subject that was set by Cecil
Gray - another of the great unknowns. A pity that the engineers pull
back on the controls at 9.13 just as Arroyo reaches a glorious climax.
Still these are all analogue AAD originals and tape saturation had to
be managed. You have to hear this: Schippers with all his considerable
operatic cunning and the NYPO at his bidding make a great collaboration.
The playing time is short, regrettably. Interpretive
values are high and Barber enthusiasts must have this. Sadly no texts
are provided although all singer enunciate with care without being mannered.
A disc made memorable by Arroyo and Steber and by Price's
faithful clarity, restraint and grip on the intimacy of her songs.