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Barber songs RES10301
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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
The Complete Songs
Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano)
Mary Bevan, Samantha Clarke, Louise Kemény, Soraya Mafi (sopranos)
Jess Dandy (contralto)
Julien Van Mellaerts, Dominic Sedgwick (baritones)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
William Thomas (bass)
Navarra String Quartet
Dylan Perez (piano)
rec. 2021, The Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, UK
Most of the sung texts enclosed, and French texts with English translations
Reviewed as download from press preview.
RESONUS RES10301 [78:14 + 80:26]

A valuable addition to the Barber discography, not least due to 19 first recordings.
I don’t know how much in vogue Samuel Barber is today, but searching on Presto Classical I got 1103 entries, which certainly is quite a lot. His orchestral music is well served by the record companies, but his vocal music less so, it seems. Still Barber was a singer himself and knew the human voice, and he was fortunate to be able to cooperate with some of the leading singers of his day. Devote admirers of his songs will, I’m sure, have classic recordings by Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price (Hermit Songs with the composer as accompanist), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (his last songs, Three Songs, Op. 45 were composed for him) and others. Three decades ago, Deutsche Grammophon issued “The Complete Songs” with Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson, and it has since then been regarded as the definitive modern set. When Resonus now issues another complete set with largely lesser-known singers, one might ask: do we need another one? The answer is an unequivocal “yes” – for two reasons: the new set is a lot more complete (there are no less than 19 songs that have never been recorded before), and the songs have been allotted to ten different singers, which gives welcome variety.

On the first disc we get all the published songs in chronological order, bar Dover Beach and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which are located to the end of CD 2, which also contains the posthumous songs published by Schirmer in “65 Songs by Samuel Barber”. Many of these are early compositions, written earlier than his first published works, and consequently are early teenager’s works. But they cannot be disregarded for that reason. Many of them are attractive. The group Three Songs: The Words from Old England, are engagingly sung by bass William Thomas, and the third, Hey Nonny No!, is cheerful little ditty. Two Poems of the Wind are simple and beautiful, folksong like, and sung tastefully by Fleur Barron. Two Songs of Youth are in the same vein, performed artlessly by Julien Van Mellaerts. Samantha Clarke sings with feeling Love’s Caution, and Shelley’s Music, when soft voices die is definitely one to return to. Jess Dandy’s deep alto is well suited for it. Soraya Mafi is a good advocate for A Slumber Song of the Madonna, and she makes the most of the well-known French folksong Au clair de la lune. This simple song has here been provided with an extremely elaborate accompaniment – charming and fun! These are a few of the highlights and there are many more to investigate. Besides the established masterworks the minor chips from a master’s workbench are also worth one’s time.

But it is the published songs on CD 1 that should be the bait for the prospective buyer of this set, and here are also grain of gold aplenty. Of the Three Songs, Op. 2, the first two are still a teenager’s work, while the rather strange Bessie Bobtail, was added several years later. William Thomas is powerful but nuanced, and his articulation is exemplary.

Nicky Spence, both smooth and brilliant handles the Three Songs, Op. 10 from 1936 with excellence. The texts are by Janes Joyce, who was Barber’s favourite author. Samantha Clarke’s bright-toned soprano seems cut out for the Four Songs, Op. 13. They were composed 1937 – 1940 (Barber was a slow worker, self-critical and conscientious) and they belong to his most popular songs. Ms Clarke here excels in soft singing. The Two Songs, Op. 18 from 1942-43 are allotted to Fleur Barron, Like Ms Clarke bright voiced but sensitive. Nuvoletta, from 1947 is another Joyce setting, excerpted from Finnegan’s Wake. It is full of contrasts and Soraya Mafi has all the liveliness and expressivity for this complicated scene, where Joyce also excels in his self-made vocabulary. Louise Kemény’s more vibrant and heavy voice sets her apart from her soprano colleagues in the Rilke settings Mélodies passagères, Op. 27. The five songs were composed 1950-51 and Barber dedicated them to Francis Poulenc and Pierre Bernac, who also recorded them. On the DG set they are sung by Thomas Hampson, and I do prefer them with a male voice, but I have no objections to Louise Kemény’s reading in itself.

Hermit Songs, composed 1952-53, are generally regarded as Barber’s greatest creations in the field of vocal music. The poems are anonymous Irish texts from the Middle Ages, written by monks, and they are as many-faceted as the music. They are both sacred and profane, humorous, a little indecent (Promiscuity), a drinking song (The Heavenly Banquet), the atmospheric Church Bell at Night – there are riches here and I am impressed by Mary Bevan’s expressive readings.

After this cycle there was a long period when Barber focused on other genres, not least opera. His Vanessa was well received when it was premiered at the Metropolitan in 1958, while Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned for the inauguration of the new Metropolitan in 1966, failed and the composer got into depression and alcoholism that hampered his composing. Affected by this, when he finally returned with the cycle Despite and Still, Op. 41 (1968-69) he adopted a more modern harmonic language, with dissonances. Again Leontyne Price premiered the new work, just as she had Hermit Songs and Antony and Cleopatra. Here it is sung by baritone Dominic Sedgwick with warm and lyrical tone. He is at his very best in In the Wilderness but has the measure for all the songs.

Barber’s final effort turned out to be Three Songs, Op. 45, in 1972. As mentioned previously they were composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who however was unable to premiere them due to illness. Here they are sung by Jess Dandy, a true contralto with beautiful tone. The last of them, O Boundless, Boundless Evening, is a wonderful farewell to the genre by Barber. I fully understand that Fischer-Dieskau loved the song.

There remain two works to consider and they are placed as the last tracks on CD 2. They differ from the rest insofar as they are not traditional songs with piano accompaniments. Dover Beach was composed in 1931 for voice and string quartet, which makes it more a chamber music piece. The strings surround the voice and make it a quintet. It is more a dialogue between strings and voice than an accompaniment. Julien Van Mellaerts’ baritone blends beautifully with the strings and his reading stands comparison with both Hampson and Fischer-Dieskau

Knoxville: Summer of 1915, composed in 1947, is described by Barber as a lyric rhapsody for voice and orchestra. It was commissioned by Eleanor Steber who premiered it in 1948 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also recorded it two years later. I have for many years admired Dawn Upshaw’s recording from 1989, and was surprised to see it here, with piano accompaniment. But it turned out that the piano also works excellently, not as colourful as the orchestral version, but the loss is not as serious as I feared. Dylan Perez’ playing is absolutely stunning – as it is throughout the album – and Nicky Spence’s singing is formidable. He had me sitting spellbound for 17 minutes, and when I had finished listening, I had to play it all over again immediately. The album is worth buying for these 17 minutes alone – but it contains riches aplenty in other respects as well, as I hope readers have understood from the review. The DG set will still have a honoured place in my collection, and I will never separate from the other discs mentioned here, but this new album will now rub shoulders with those old favourites – and expand the collection with 19 never before recorded songs. The only misgiving I have is that not all the texts are printed in the booklet, probably due to copyright.

Göran Forsling

DISC ONE [78:14]

Three Songs, Op. 2 (WT)
1. The Daisies [1:05]
2. With rue my heart is laden [1:20]
3. Bessie Bobtail [2:53]

Three Songs, Op. 10 (NS)
4. Rain has fallen [2:29]
5. Sleep now [2:48]
6. I hear an army [2:37]

Four songs, Op. 13 (SC)
7. A Nun Takes the Veil [1:32]
8. The Secrets of the Old [1:13]
9. Sure on this shining night [2:23]
10. Nocturne [3:55]

Two Songs, Op. 18 (FB)
11. The queen’s face on the summery coin [2:29]
12. Monks and Raisins [1:19]

13. Nuvoletta, Op. 25 (SM) [5:18]

Mélodies passagères, Op. 27 (LK)
14. Puisque tout passe [1:24]
15. Un cygne [2:23]
16. Tombeau dans un parc [1:55]
17. Le clocher chante [1:30]
18. Départ [1:52]

Hermit Songs, Op. 29 (MB)
19. At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory [1:33]
20. Church Bell at Night [0:55]
21. St. Ita’s Vision [3:22]
22. The Heavenly Banquet [1:16]
23. The Crucifixion [2:11]
24. Sea-Snatch [0:42]
25. Promiscuity [1:00]
26. The Monk and his Cat [3:01]
27. The Praises of God [1:04]
28. The Desire for Hermitage [3:42]

Despite and Still, Op. 42 (DS)
29. A Last Song [2:17]
30. My Lizard [1:05]
31. In the Wilderness [3:06]
32. Solitary Hotel [2:44]
33. Despite and Still [1:34]

Three Songs, Op. 45 (JD)
34. Now have I fed and eaten up the rose [2:04]
35. A Green Lowland of Pianos [2:14]
36. O boundless, boundless evening [3:38]

DISC TWO [80:26]

Three Songs: The Words from Old England * (WT)
1. Lady, when I behold the roses [1:21]
2. An Earnest Suit to His Unkind Mistress Not to Forsake Him [2:21]
3. Hey Nonny No! [0:49]

Two Poems of the Wind * (FB)
4. Little children of the Wind [1:20]
5. Longing [2:00]

Two Songs of Youth * (JVM)
6. Invocation to Youth [1:21]
7. I never thought that youth would go [1:19]

8. Love’s Caution (SC) [3:17]
9. Night Wanderers (DS) [3:10]
10. Beggar’s Song (JVM) [1:57]
11. Music, when soft voices die * (JD) [1:27]
12. A Slumber Song of the Madonna (SM) [1:55]
13. Fantasy in Purple * (WT) [1:56]
14. La nuit * (SM) [2:39]
15. Of that so sweet imprisonment (LK) [2:05]
16. In the dark pinewood (FB) [1:44]
17. Strings in the earth and air (LK) [1:23]
18. Ask me to rest * (DS) [1:54]
19. Au clair de la lune * (SM) [2:16]
20. Mother I cannot mind my wheel * (SM) [1:11]
21. Love at the Door (FB) [1:34]
22. Man * (LK) [2:49]
23. Serenader (JVM) [1:51]
24. Peace * (JD) [1:55]
25. Who carries corn and crown * (WT) [1:16]
26. Watchers * (JD) [3:27]
27. Thy Love * (WT) [1:33]
28. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening * (JD) [2:10]
29. There’s nae lark (NS) [1:34]

30. Dover Beach, Op. 3 (JVM/NSQ) [7:43]

31. Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24 (NS) [16:53]

* First Recording

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