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
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.
the ONYX Catalogue