Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Despite and Still
Nuvoletta, Op. 25 (1947) [5:21]
Hermit Songs, Op. 29 (1952-3) [17:17]
The Secrets of the Old, Op. 13 No. 2 (1938) [1:26]
Sure on this shining night, Op. 13 No. 3 (1938) [2:32]
Despite and Still, Op. 41 (1969) [10:53]
Monks and Raisins, Op. 18 No. 2 (1943) [1:24]
Rain has fallen (1935) [2:36]
Three Songs, Op. 45 (1972) [7:16]
Melissa Fogarty (soprano)
Marc Peloquin (piano)
rec. Concert Hall, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, 10, 12, 14 January 2011
AUREOLE RECORDS 101 [48:45]
Although the main work here is the set of ten Hermit Songs, the CD's title is taken from a later cycle of five songs, Despite and Still. With the Three Songs Op. 45 and five other free-standing songs, this amounts to a fair selection of Barber's output in this sphere - there are over sixty songs if one includes the posthumously published early works. The second song of Op. 45 - A Green Lowland of Pianos (Czeslaw Milosz from the Polish of Jerzy Harasymowicz)- is the inspiration behind the surreal artwork on the slim packaging. The texts, biographies and excellent notes are available only from a website.
According to Barbara B. Heyman (Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music), the Hermit Songs are “among the most performed of Barber's works”, though I must say, sadly, that I have not noticed this in the UK. In November 1952 Barber wrote to his uncle Sidney Homer - who was also the composer's mentor for over thirty years - “I have come across some poems of the 10th century - in fact the poems range from the 8th-13thcenturies - translated into modern English by various people, and am making a song cycle out of them, to be called, perhaps 'Hermit Songs'. These were extraordinary men, monks or hermits or what not, and they wrote these little poems on the corners of MSS they were illuminating or just copying. I find them very direct, unspoiled and often curiously contemporaneous in feeling.” Barber added a note: “much like the Fioretti of St. Francis of Assisi.” Although the songs are extremely diverse inform and style, two recurring features are Barber's apt use of archaic fourths and fifths in his harmony and his omission of time-signatures throughout, facilitating irregularities of metre. The diverse moods include prayer-like or meditative, witty, tender and angry. Ms. Fogarty encompasses them all, using her voice with intelligence and attention to meaning. These remarks apply to the CD as whole.
It is good to have such a collection of Barber's finest songs. I suspect some listeners may have their perception of Barber greatly extended as a result. However, I do have a problem with Ms. Fogarty's voice, which is not particularly ingratiating and rather spoilt by a tremulous quality. This is not so noticeable when the note-values are shorter, but when there is a sustained passage (see A Last Song from Despite and Still below) the effect is wearying. Also the vibrato does sometimes affect the intonation at the top of the stave. Other shortcomings are a rather limited dynamic range and diction which often produces unrecognisable vowel sounds. For me, unfortunately, the actual quality of Ms. Fogarty's voice rather nullifies her positive attributes. The substantial opening song, Nuvoletta (from Joyce's Finnegans Wake), requires quite a wide expressive range and therefore provides a good illustration of the music-making on offer. Marc Peloquin plays most sensitively here and throughout.
The group Despite and Still includes three settings of Robert Graves, a favourite poet of Barber's, and one each from Theodore Roethke and James Joyce. Here themes of loneliness, “wilderness” and despair suggest more than a little autobiographical significance. For an extreme example of Ms. Fogarty's intrusive tremulousness in a sustained line, listen to A Last Song from the words “And for me …” to the end.
There is strong competition in this repertoire - the mellifluous voices of Gerald Finley (Hyperion), Thomas Hampson and Cheryl Studer (DG, Gramophone Awards Selection), and Leontyne Price with the composer (RCA). Barber's songs represent an important and valuable part of his output, so this new contribution is welcome. However, for the reasons given above, I would suggest that this CD - short measure, by the way - is overshadowed by the alternatives.
Overshadowed by the alternatives.
see also review by Rob Barnett