Assessing the recordings of Barber's evocative vocal work
Knoxville's increasing popularity can be gauged by the rapid proliferation of the work on disc beginning in the late 1980s - some featuring European orchestras or conductors. The only non-US singer to tackle the part thus far is British soprano Jill Gomez, whose 1988 Virgin Classics recording (recently deleted) with Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia is admirable overall. She does not really manage to affect a convincing American drawl, but she was probably wise not to try too hard in the first place. The glistening, dewy quality of her voice is very appealing - so much so that its womanly character does not seem at all out of place. Interestingly, Gomez treats Knoxville as pure song, often sacrificing diction for vocal grace. Her expressive swooping in 'Sleep, soft-smiling, draws me unto her' is surely too opulent, but elsewhere she sings with the appropriate simplicity. One senses that she wanted to take the opening section and its various recurrences a bit faster than Hickox lets her, though at least his slow tempos are steadily maintained.
Roberta Alexander is even more songful on her 1992 all-Barber disc with Edo de Waart and the Netherlands Philharmonic. She softens consonants so much, in fact, that even in key passages like 'who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth', the text is entirely unintelligible. (Her diction, though, is not unintelligible enough to hide the fact that she mispronounces 'stertorous' as 'sterotous.') Yet her performance is oddly compelling. Not all of the part sits comfortably in her voice, though her basic sound with its vulnerable flutter is charming. And even if she treats the piece as something akin to a vocalise, there are interpretive details to admire: the way she lingers over 'low on the length of lawns,' the sustained yet appropriately simple quality of 'on the rough wet grass of the back yard', and the delicate shading of 'Sleep, soft-smiling'. De Waart's conducting is affectionate and supple, and he does not tarry too much. The recording aims for a concert hall perspective, though the recessed sound renders the orchestra's tone rather colourless.
Barbara Hendricks, in her 1994 EMI recording, stands at the opposite extreme from Alexander in terms of articulating the text. Here is a singer willing to sacrifice rhythmic precision and even pitch placement in order to bring the words to the fore. Her tone is naturally boyish, which suits the music well - though her tendency to scoop up notes does not. But Hendricks's radical interpretation is persuasive, too. She is one of the few who really sings 'the dry and exalted noise of the locusts' with a palpable sense of wonderment, for example. And while she sometimes appears to be directing too much energy into the childlike aspect of her characterisation, one never doubts her sincerity. She clearly loves Agee's words as much as Barber's music - and that in itself provides pleasure.
Unfortunately, Michael Tilson Thomas lets the London Symphony play much too loudly much too often, and he favours some very odd balances, letting the trumpet blast fortissimo, for example, in a secondary line that is marked mezzo forte (two bars before 'By some chance, here they are'). The engineering does not help matters, either, making Hendricks's upper register unusually shrill and the LSO strings unpleasantly glassy.
The sound quality of Kathleen Battle's 1992 DG recording is even more distressing. André Previn appears to have a genuine, tender feeling for the music, though it is difficult to tell given the muddy sound of the orchestra, and Battle's part seems to have been recorded in a completely separate and overly resonant acoustic. But the bad recording cannot hide the fact that Battle is temperamentally unsuited to Knoxville (not to mention that she occasionally sings under pitch). Indeed, her arch delivery must be heard to be believed. She sounds so snooty, one imagines that Knoxville in 1915 was not a small town but a gated community. Battle's best singing comes at the end. She gives a warm caress to 'with voices gentle and meaningless', and she holds back touchingly on 'who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth', instead of blaring forth as others do. Beyond those points, though, her interpretation has little to recommend it.
One can say, however, that Battle's soprano is (or was) naturally suited to Knoxville; Ruth Golden's is entirely wrong for it. Thick and unwieldy, with a tendency to spread at the top of the staff, she makes Steber sound quite youthful. Golden opts for the pure-song approach, though compared with Alexander or Gomez, there is precious little delicacy or grace in the way she shapes the musical line. The 1995 Koch recording by the San Diego Chamber Orchestra offers some attractive Barber rarities, but this is another Knoxville to be avoided.
Evelyn Lear demonstrates that taking a motherly tone can work in Knoxville on an undocumented live recording from the 1960s (VAI). The sound is quite decent, all things considered, but the orchestral playing is sub par and Kenneth Montgomery's conducting is maddeningly sluggish. Too bad Lear was not given the opportunity to make a proper recording - she has a lot to offer.
One wants to like Linda Hohenfeld's performance because she tries so hard, though that conspicuous sense of striving is probably why her 1997 Claves recording ultimately fails to satisfy. To succeed fully, Knoxville must sound effortless. Hohenfeld begins by speaking the first sentence of Agee's complete text (quoted above), which Barber placed as an epigraph to the score. Hearing the faint chuckle in her voice when she reads 'so successfully disguised to myself as a child', one thinks, 'Uh-oh, an actress'. In fact, Hohenfeld characterises many passages effectively. The problem ultimately is the voice itself - thin, pale and edgy, it communicates neither the music's sweetness nor its darker qualities. Conductor Stephen Somary indulges in too many unmarked ritardandos, and the Nürnberg Symphony Orchestra lumbers through the score.
The top choices
Let's not beat around the bush - if you want just one recording of Knoxville, it should be Upshaw's. In no other version is the intimacy of Barber's music so poignantly conveyed. Upshaw manages to sing the piece beautifully while articulating the text with absolute clarity. Zinman's fastidiously attentive conducting contributes strongly to the performance's success. One caveat: the couplings (Harbison's Mirabai Songs and an aria each by Menotti and Stravinsky) are a bit skimpy - yielding a total playing time of just 43 minutes - and the Stravinsky is out of place in this programme of Americana.
Price's imaginative interpretation is also essential, and the recording's value is increased by the inclusion of excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra and a live recording of the premiere of the Hermit Songs with Barber at the piano. It is a disc that belongs in any serious collection of vocal music.
And then there's Steber - another historic recording that deserves serious consideration. If you have heard Upshaw, McNair, Hendricks, or even Price, Steber's voice may seem too heavy for the part. Once the ear adjusts, however, the concentration and dignity of her singing shine through. The most recent reissue, on Masterworks Heritage, includes Price's studio version of the Hermit Songs (again with the composer at the piano), Copland accompanying William Warfield in both sets of Old American Songs and two rare works by Virgil Thomson - classic recordings all.
Finally, it is fun to imagine what recorded interpretations the future may hold. Surely, with her purity of tone and sensitivity to words - particularly in American music - Barbara Bonney would give us a memorable Knoxville. Renée Fleming's feeling for American popular song would likely provide a performance to savour, too. Of course these tantalising possibilities may remain forever in the realm of fantasy. No matter. Upshaw, Price and Steber have already given its recordings to 'enchant our eardrums'.
THE MAIN CONTENDERS
Eleanor Steber, Dumbarton Oaks SO / William Strickland
Sony Classical MI-K60899 Buy from Amazon
ANOTHER, MORE RECENT VERSION, TO HEAR
Karina Gauvin, RSNO / Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.559134 Buy from Amazon
An Editor's Choice in June 2004. James Jolly wrote: 'This new Naxos disc is something of a revelation. Karina Gauvin…takes a wonderfully innocent approach, beautifully accompanied by Marin Alsop whose uncovers all sorts of ear-tickling orchestral details.'