Barber The Songs

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Barber The Songs

  • (A) Slumber Song of the Madonna
  • There's Nae Lark
  • Love at the door
  • Serenader
  • Love's Caution
  • Night Wanderers
  • Of that so sweet imprisonment
  • Strings in the Earth and Air
  • (The) Beggar's song
  • In the dark pinewood
  • (3) Songs
  • (3) Songs
  • (4) Songs
  • Dover Beach
  • (2) Songs
  • Nuvoletta
  • Mélodies passagères
  • (10) Hermit Songs
  • Despite and Still
  • (3) Songs

The word 'complete' appears on the booklet accompanying this set, and although it's not literally true (there are many unpublished Barber songs that we must hope to hear some day) it is the right word to have chosen. Firstly, because the set contains, in addition to all the published songs, ten that have been unknown until now, and all are real discoveries, worthy of a place not only in this collection but in widespread performance: singers hunting for rewarding repertory will be unable to resist such an immaculately simple, memorable melody as Oh that so sweet imprisonment, or the insidiously catchy Beggar's song, with its fanfare-like accompaniment (a sure-fire encore piece if ever I heard one). Several of the other newly revealed songs have that Barber hallmark, the ability to build considerable eloquence from simple gesture, and all of them show his discriminating flair for choosing texts that are apt for setting and for singing.
Secondly, the set provides a compelling argument for regarding Barber's songs as his art at its most complete. There's hardly a weak song in the collection, and though for a really 'complete Barber' we should ideally need the orchestral songs and scenas as well, Dover Beach (ideally sung and played) is here to represent them. And lastly these are wonderfully 'complete' performances: Hampson especially brings to this music a remarkable range of expression and colour, a subtle use of words and a conviction that not a few of these songs are masterpieces. Studer has a slightly cooler approach, projects her words with rather less character, but often provides the vocal glamour, the ability to sketch long curves and floated high notes, that Barber (singer himself and connoisseur of singing) so often demanded. And John Browning, to whose virtuosity Barber tailored his Piano Concerto, sounds not only like a man who has yearned to accompany these singers in these songs for a long while, but like a considerable accompanist indeed, matching Hampson's dynamic range and expressive flexibility and Studer's seamless line with resourceful sympathy.
Sung in chronological order these songs are almost an autobiography. We can hear Barber challenging his precocious talent and fluent melodic gift with more and more demanding texts. As early as Op. 2, he rounds out two delightful songs from his teens with the wrenching pathos of ''Bessie Bobtail'' (a spine-tingling performance by Hampson, never a hint of exaggeration in its huge spectrum of colour and dynamic, the clarity of his words never distorting the line). He soon finds an affinity with James Joyce, choosing not only lyrics that Joyce (a singer himself) conceived with music in mind, but finding perfect solutions to such awkward texts as Nuvoletta (sheer genius to set it as a waltz-song with overtones of Gounod) and ''A solitary hotel'' (from Despite and Still, almost spoken recitatives alternating with an insinuating slow tango). He becomes a composer of delicately inflected chansons when writing the Melodies passageres for Bernac and Poulenc (but how characteristic that he should have chosen rather recondite words for the purpose: French poems by Rilke), finds a world of humour, wonder and piercing vision in the translated Irish texts of the Hermit Songs and enjoys challenging not only himself but Fischer-Dieskau (who commissioned Op. 45) with allusive, surreal images. Autobiography is at its most direct in Despite and Still, the once golden boy of American music now well into middle-age, suffering public and personal rejection, writing of his loneliness and despair with a poignancy all the more moving for his by now customary restraint. Hampson realizes how painfully, rawly personal they are, and sings them almost throughout with a comparable and most moving intimacy.
Yes, I could have done with a little more wit from Studer in Nuvoletta, lovely though her line and shading are, and in ''The Monk and his Cat'' (from Hermit Songs), but her touching simplicity elsewhere makes up for a lot. Otherwise no criticisms at all. This is both the most valuable and the most enjoyable recorded song recital that I have heard for a very long while, and the recorded sound is flawless.'

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