Performances of this calibre emphasise Barber’s stature in the mainstream of 20th-century song composers. The tradition is Anglo-American and “There’s nae lark”, written when Barber was 16 to a poem by Swinburne in imitation Scots, could even be by Quilter. But Barber soon gets into his stride and by the time he reached his Three Songs, Op†10, there’s a rare kind of intensity as impressive as anything on this CD. The poems are from James Joyce’s Chamber Music; Barber set a few more, such as “In the dark pinewood” included here; but what a tragedy he never set the whole cycle that could have been an American Winterreise. The Hermit Songs, fey and whimsically amusing, are probably the best-known set.
The immediate comparison is with the Gramophone Award-winning Thomas Hampson, who is accompanied by John Browning, a close friend and colleague of Barber’s. Finley’s voice is lower – he transposes many of the songs – and richer, with nothing to fear alongside Hampson, who is anyway on a two-CD set. Mostly I prefer Finley, and the recording is warmer.
“Sure on the shining night” is vintage Barber, and Finley and Drake are impeccable (as are the Aronowitz Quartet in Dover Beach). The French songs, to poems by Rilke, who did write in French, have less character, but the single songs are all gems. This is another outstanding Hyperion release that does credit to Barber in what will soon be a run-up to his centenary.