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My name is Barbara
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953) Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, Op. 12 (1908) [12’35"]
Charles T GRIFFES (1864-1920) Three poems of Fiona Macleod, Op. 11 (1918) [9’59"]
Aaron COPLAND Four early songs (1918-22) [9’40"]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) On this Island, Op. 11 (1938) – five songs for high voice and piano [13’30"]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) I hate music! (1943) – five kids songs for soprano and piano [6’45"]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Four songs, Op. 13 (1940) [8’33"]
Barbara Bonney (soprano); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. St. Martin’s, East Woodhay, Hampshire, England. 21-24 February, 2005. DDD
ONYX CLASSICS ONYX 4003 [62’04"]

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This is one of the first batch of releases from a new label, Onyx Classics. I think I am right in saying that one of the ideas behind the establishment of this label is that it will issue recordings by some of the many fine artists that have been sidelined by the major record labels in recent years as those labels have retrenched - sometimes into the bunker! If so, it’s a laudable idea that will promote artists of the calibre of Pascal Rogé, the Borodin Quartet, Viktoria Mullova and, as we see here, Barbara Bonney.

I’ve long been an admirer of Miss Bonney and so I was eager to hear this new CD, especially as it included some English songs, an area of the repertoire in which I don’t recall hearing her before. When I got the disc and saw the programme the very first thing I did was to put the disc in the player and search for track 27, Samuel Barber’s ‘Sure on this shining night’. This, I think, is one of the finest, if not the finest twentieth-century art song that I know and so I regard it as something of a touchstone. It’s Barber at his most lyrically inspired and perhaps it’s no accident that it’s a setting of words by James Agee, who also provided the text for Barber’s vocal masterpiece, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. After only a few bars had passed I knew that if this was to be typical of the standard of performance on this CD (it is!) I would enjoy it greatly. Miss Bonney’s soft American accent suits this song to perfection and her lovely, pure and even tone and her clear diction give great pleasure. I must admit I was somewhat surprised that in the final stanza she takes a breath before the very last two words (unlike Cheryl Studer in the magnificent survey of Barber’s Complete Songs on DG) but this is but the tiniest blemish on an otherwise radiant performance.

The rest of the Barber group is just as well done, with the concluding ‘Nocturne’ perfectly poised and ‘A nun takes the veil’ delivered with just the right degree of fervour.

For me Barber is in a different league to Leonard Bernstein as a composer of songs, in part because his choice of texts was invariably discerning. Bernstein’s little cycle, I hate music! is an entertaining jeu d’esprit in which he sets his own deliberately naive words. Some of the words now sound dated but the music is clever and Miss Bonney sounds completely at ease with the idiom.

Two sets of songs were new to me. Though I’m a great admirer of Copland’s music I’m ashamed to say that I can’t recall previously hearing his Four early songs. These date from 1918-22 and so overlap to some extent with the period of his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (1921-24). Interestingly, all four are in slow tempo though that doesn’t imply a lack of variety. I can’t say I detected much French influence (I may be wrong) but there seems to be something of an erotic undertone. I particularly enjoyed the first in the set, ‘Night’, which is pregnant with atmosphere and the third song, ‘My heart is in the East’ which is especially eloquent. I’m delighted to have made the acquaintance of these songs, the more so when they’re as winningly performed as here.

The other discovery is the trio of songs by Charles Griffes. As the liner note says, these are "suffused with brooding passion" and anyone acquainted with his orchestral music will not be surprised to find that these compositions have a very exotic feel to them. Miss Bonney proves to be a splendid advocate of these songs and she left me wondering why on earth we don’t hear them more often. Perhaps because they need artists with the technique and sensitivity on display here. The most exotic musical language is reserved for the third song, ‘The rose of the night’. This is perhaps even more demanding of the singer than the other two settings. Part way through Griffes requires his singer to sing the words "Deep silence of the night" in a very low register; Here Miss Bonney produces a thrillingly quiet, sultry sound, probably using her chest voice. Within seconds and a few bars Griffes has taken her back up into the higher vocal reaches, requiring the use of head voice. What a test of technique! Miss Bonney, however, makes it all sound so easy.

I can’t recall hearing her before in English song (though I’m sure I must have done.) Britten’s On this island is a fairly early piece. I may as well be honest and say that his music in this cycle doesn’t appeal to me greatly, still less the imagery of Auden’s words. However, those who respond to this work more positively than me can be reassured that it receives a fine reading here. I was impressed in particular with the very atmospheric account of the penultimate song, ‘Nocturne’.

Roger Quilter’s songs are much more to my taste and I found Miss Bonney to be a most sympathetic interpreter. In the opening song, ‘Weep you no more’, she catches the wistful nature of this lovely sing perfectly. In ‘My life’s delight’, which follows it, there’s a headlong enthusiasm in her singing, which is just right. Here, as elsewhere in the recital, she sings off the words but never at the expense of tone or of integrity of line. The cycle concludes with ’Fair house of joy’, which is for me not just Quilter’s greatest song but one of the foremost in the whole English song repertoire. Ideally I’d have preferred it if Miss Bonney had taken it just a touch slower to bring breadth in particular to the piano part. But that aside it’s still very well done and she conveys the mood of ecstasy beautifully.

All in all this is a splendid recital. The singing is committed, intelligent and delights the ear. Occasionally I thought I detected a slight tendency to sing fractionally under the note, perhaps for emphasis. I may have been imagining this but even so it didn’t mar my pleasure at hearing some radiant singing. It would be an insult to say that the singer is "accompanied" by Malcolm Martineau for what we hear is a true musical partnership. Martineau is responsive to his singer at every turn and provides numerous insights and felicities through his playing – as he invariably does in my experience.

The recorded sound is excellent. It’s admirably clear. I did wonder if perhaps the performers could have been set slightly back from the microphones but this is to quibble. More importantly they are recorded in excellent relation to each other. There’s a useful note and all the song texts are supplied thought the documentation is in English only.

This CD marks an auspicious start to the Onyx label with a discerningly chosen programme splendidly performed and recorded. If this is to be typical of the releases on this label then Onyx will swiftly establish an excellent reputation. I wish the label well.

This is a distinguished CD, which I have enjoyed greatly and will continue to enjoy in the future. I recommend it very highly.

John Quinn

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