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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
There’s nae lark (1927) [1:34]
The Beggar’s Song (1936) [2:07]
In the dark pinewood (1937) [1:55]
Bessie Bobtail Op. 2 No. 3 (1934) [2:51]
Hermit Songs Op. 29 (1952-53) [18:55]
Three Songs Op. 10 (1935-36) [7:39]
Mélodies passagères Op. 27 (1950-51) [9:40]
The Daisies Op. 2 No. 1 (1927) [1:04]
With rue my heart is laden Op. 2 No. 2 (1926) [1:13]
Nocturne Op. 13. No. 4 (1940)[3:19]
Sure on this shining night Op. 13 No. 3 (1938) [2:37]
Dover Beach, Op. 3* (1931) [8:11]
Gerald Finley (baritone)/Julius Drake (piano)/*The Aronowitz Ensemble
rec. December 2005 and February 2007. Venue not specified
Texts and English translations supplied
HYPERION CDA67528 [62:17]
Experience Classicsonline

The Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley, has already given us a recital of songs by Charles Ives. I haven’t heard that but it was favourably reviewed on MusicWeb. Now he teams up again with Julius Drake for an exploration of the songs of another American, Samuel Barber.
Barber is perhaps the greatest of all American art song composers and, indeed, one of the finest of all twentieth-century composers in this genre. Like all the very best art song writers he combines a strong melodic gift with an excellent and perceptive taste in literature. And as Calum MacDonald puts it in his booklet note, “Throughout his song output, he found ways of capturing the poets’ thought in musical correlatives that were never merely decorative, and developed an instinctive knack for embodying words in a memorable vocal shape.” The selection of songs on this present CD amply confirms that verdict.
Barber’s songs are quite well represented on CD, including some recitals devoted exclusively to his work. Pride of place amongst the previous essays in the field must go to DG’s 1994 two-disc set of the Complete Songs on which Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson were partnered by no less an exponent of Barber’s piano music than John Browning. That set, containing some 47 items, was valuable not least for its inclusion of a number of unpublished songs and the standard of performance and interpretation was very high indeed. I think that Gerald Finley and Julius Drake can hold their heads up high in that illustrious company.
One habitual characteristic of Gerald Finley’s singing is his ability to deploy, where appropriate, a warm and seamless legato. This enables him to serve Barber very well. The very first offering, the early There’s nae lark, with its gentle lyricism, benefits accordingly. I also admired greatly Finley’s exquisite delivery of the soft, undulating vocal line in In the dark pinewood. In this latter song Thomas Hampson adopts a slightly quicker, and therefore more flowing, tempo. Some may share my preference for Hampson’s way with the song but, on its own terms, Finley’s singing of the song is just as fine.
Finley is in his element in the three songs that constitute Op. 10, all of which are settings of James Joyce. The first one, Rain has fallen, is built to a powerful climax by Finley and Drake. This is followed by Sleep now. This is anything but a conventional lullaby, especially in its central stanza, and Finley puts it across very well. Best of all is I hear an army. This is a magnificent song and Finley treats us to a vehement account of it, his singing underpinned by some powerful pianism from Drake. Hampson also gives a superb account of this song but I find Finley even more impressive, though perhaps the fact that his recording is cut at a slightly higher level adds to the impact.
At the centre of the recital is the collection of ten songs to which Barber gave the title, Hermit Songs. These are mainly short settings of English translations of medieval poems attributed to Irish saints and mystics. The cycle was fist performed in October 1953 by Leontyne Price, accompanied by Barber himself, and an invaluable recording of the première can be found on Bridge Records (Bridge 9156). Since the first performance the cycle has tended to be the preserve of female singers – Cheryl Studer sings it on the DG album – and, indeed, I can’t recall hearing it sung by a man. However, there’s no inherent reason why a man shouldn’t sing these songs since most of the texts actually imply, at least, a male author and, of course, historically the term “hermit” has generally been taken, rightly or wrongly, to imply the male gender.
Finley amply vindicates his decision to perform these songs. He has the requisite command in the first song, At St. Patrick’s Purgatory. A little later he’s rapt and confiding in the central section of St Ita’s Vision, and the concluding soft high note in this song is beautifully placed and controlled. In The Crucifixion he’s deeply expressive with his ample supply of vocal power put to good use when required. The best known of the set is The Monk and his Cat. At the start Finley sounds languorous, suggesting a cat curled up comfortably in front of a fire. The piano part includes some wonderful witty, syncopated figures which Julius Drake plays quite smoothly, thereby imparting a real feline feeling, which I’m sure is apposite. John Browning does something pretty similar but it’s interesting to note that the composer himself articulates these rhythms much more sharply. The last song of all, The Desire for hermitage, is a marvellous piece. Finley sings it in such a way as to suggest that in the title the word “longing” could be substituted for “desire”. He’s very effective here. On the DG set Cheryl Studer’s approach is not dissimilar though Leontyne Price, presumably schooled by the composer, sounds more direct.
I should also mention the performance of Mélodies passagères, a set of five songs that Barber wrote for and dedicated to Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc. How effortlessly Barber takes to the milieu of mélodies. I’m sure Poulenc was delighted by these songs and would have been happy to have written them himself. The performance here is full of refinement, not least in Un cygne, which benefits hugely from Finley’s enviable legato and also from the appropriately liquid pianism of Drake.   
Near the end of the programme Finley sings The Daisies. Here I think he’s perhaps a bit too suave and calculating for what is essentially a quite simple song. That said, I find the same traits in Thomas Hampson’s reading. In passing, I wonder why the three songs that constitute Op. 2 were split up on the CD. It would have made more sense to have grouped them together. The final offering from Finley and Drake is Sure on this shining night, which I regard not just as one of Barber’s finest songs but as one of the greatest of all twentieth-century songs. Finley’s account of it is impressive.
For the very last item on the disc Finley collaborates with members of The Aronowitz Ensemble for Dover Beach. This gravely beautiful setting of words by Matthew Arnold is justly admired amongst Barber’s output. Indeed, he showed that he was no mean singer in a very fine recording – the work’s first, I believe - that he himself made in 1935 with the Curtis String Quartet. Calum MacDonald refers to the “exalted pessimism” of Arnold’s text. Barber brings that out in his music and Finley and his collaborators respond readily. Finley brings out the expressive nuances of the piece and projects it imaginatively. It’s a restrained composition, requiring sensitivity and control from the performers. This it receives here and as a result when the one climax arrives, near the end, at the words “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light …” It’s all the more arresting as a result of the artists’ control up to this point. Thomas Hampson offers an equally impressive account on DG and, to be honest, I find it well nigh impossible to express a preference. Dover Beach makes for a very satisfying conclusion to this Hyperion recital.    
Throughout the programme the recorded sound is good and clear. The booklet includes a good note by Calum MacDonald and the texts of almost all the songs, together with an English translation of the words of Mélodies passagères. The exception is the Joyce songs, which have been omitted for copyright reasons – though DG included them. That’s a pity since Joyce’s words are not always the easiest to comprehend.  Actually, Hyperion’s usual high documentation standards slip a little on this occasion. Very limited information is supplied about the dates and venue of the recording. Also there’s inconsistency about giving dates of the composition of the various songs: some are missed out altogether while to get the rest you have to flit between the track listing and the notes. Readers should note also that often the date given in the booklet is the date not of composition but of publication. That can be misleading since some of the songs were published several years after they were written. For the heading to this review I have gone back to the DG booklet, which gives both dates, and I have inserted the dates of composition. It’s most unusual to find Hyperion just a little bit slack in the matter of documentation.
However, let not that caveat detract from an enthusiastic recommendation for this new disc. All Barber enthusiasts will want the DG collection not only on account of its excellence but also because it is so comprehensive. However, those wanting a high quality single-disc selection of Samuel Barber’s songs need look no further than this fine offering from Gerald Finley.
John Quinn


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