Wednesday 11 May 2022

Samuel Barber: The Complete Songs, Dylan Perez & friends survey nearly 50 years of the composer's songs including those unpublished during his lifetime

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) - The Complete Songs - Resonus Classics
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) - The Complete Songs; Fleur Barron, Mary Bevan, Samantha Clarke, Jess Dandy, Louise Kemény, Soraya Mafi, Julien Van Mellaerts, Dominic Sedgwick, Nicky Spence, William Thomas, Navarra String Quartet, Dylan Perez; Resonus Classics
Reviewed 10 May 2022 (★★★) 

An amazing achievement, pianist Dylan Perez and a fine array of young singers in a survey of Barber's complete songs from 1924 through to 1972

This new set from pianist Dylan Perez is almost the record set that you didn't know that you needed. Samuel Barber's songs are much anthologised, we all know a selection of them but few people actually concentrate on the whole corpus and, frankly, when did you last hear a complete performance of his major cycle Hermit Songs.

So, over two discs from Resonus Classics, pianist Dylan Perez is joined by a fine array of young talent, Fleur Barron, Mary Bevan, Samantha Clarke, Jess Dandy, Louise Kemeny, Soraya Mafi, Julien Van Mellaerts, Dominic Sedgwick, Nicky Spence and William Thomas, plus the Navarra String Quartet, for Samuel Barber's complete songs, both those published during his lifetime (with opus numbers) and those only published posthumously. We also get Dover Beach, for baritone and string quartet, and the premiere recording of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 in the composer's own piano version. That is a lot of songs (67 in fact) for a composer whose most famous work, by a long chalk, is a string piece adapted from a string quartet.

But singing and song was threaded through Barber's early life. His mother's sister was the contralto Louise Homer, who was member of the Metropolitan Opera from 1900 to 1929. Her husband was the composer Sidney Homer, a composer who concentrated on song and who wrote extensively for his wife. Sidney Homer would mentor Samuel Barber and many of the early songs (on the second disc) were performed by Louise Homer. Barber's own studies at the Curtis Institute including voice and for a short period he had a career as a professional baritone, making a recording of Dover Beach. The repertoire on the discs spreads right across Barber's compositional life from the mid 1920s (when he was in his teens) right through to 1972. 

In his style, he steered a steady and confident course, avoiding the fashionable modernisms that threaded their way through the 20th century but also avoiding the more jazz-inspired writing of his American contemporaries. These are well-made, striking songs with a highly intelligent response to text. And his selection of texts were wide with authors including James Stephens, A.E.Housman, James Joyce, Gerald Manley Hopkins, W.B.Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke (in French), Robert Graves, Matthew Arnold and of course the many anonymous texts in the Hermit Songs, and he even created a song out of a slice of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Perhaps the composer that Barber most resembled, when it came to his intelligent approach to texts, was Benjamin Britten.

Bass William Thomas brings admirable firmness to Three Songs, Op.2, moving them away from the neo-folk idiom that they can often seem to be, but highlighting the links English song. These date from 1927 to 1934. By the time we get to the next group. Three Songs, Op.10 from 1936, Barber had also written Dover Beach. Nicky Spence sings the Opus 10 songs, setting texts by James Joyce and with these songs you really feel Barber's song-writing has come of age. Powerful, intense and intelligently crafted around Joyce's sometimes complex poetry, and here rendered poetically and strikingly by Spence, with great partnership from Perez in the complex piano writing.

Four Songs, Op.13 date from 1937-1940, and each has a strong, rather direct text. Sung her by Samantha Clarke, they prove four highly characterised pieces where the piano seems to take more of a back seat. These are very much about voice and text, beautifully rendered by Clarke with brightly appealing tone. And she certainly makes the best-known of the songs, Sure on this shining night, her own.

Two Songs, Op.18 move us on to 1943-43, both with rather curious texts and alas these are two of the songs where the admirable booklet fails to print the texts. Fleur Barron provides warmly engaging tone, though her diction can be somewhat occluded. Nuovoletta from 1947 returns us to James Joyce with a complete passage from Finnegans Wake. Despite the apparent denseness of the text, Sorayi Mafi brings style and deft charm to the piece.

Mélodies passagères, Op. 51 from 1950-51 sets five French poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (who wrote a surprising amount French poetry). There were written for Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc, who were so enthusiastic about them that they recorded them. Here they are sung by Louise Kemeny with warm, lyric tone, yet I remain intrigued as to what Bernac's far drier delivery would have sounded like. What one notices is the highly decorative nature of the piano part and whilst they might not be mistaken for French song, clearly Barber was breathing French air when he wrote them. 

With Hermit SongsOp. 53 we come to the central work in this first disc of Barber's song repertoire. Written in 1953 on a grant from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, they were premiered by Leontyne Price (then a young unknown) with Barber at the piano. They represent a remarkable move sideways in terms of Barber's song-writing. Still the Irish connection, but here anonymous poems written by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th to the 13th centuries, in translations by W. H. Auden, Chester Kallman, Howard Mumford Jones, Kenneth H. Jackson and Seán Ó Faoláin.

Some are quite short, almost aphoristic and each creates a strong, direct atmosphere, neither the vocal writing nor the piano is at all decorative. They were premiered by one grand dame, Leontyne Price, and recorded by another, Eleanor Steber, but here Mary Bevan makes them very much her own, giving each song an intimacy that draws you in, each one a tiny personal statement. 

Barber's opera Vanessa premiered in 1958 and won him a Pullitzer Prize. His next opera, Anthony and Cleopatra was chosen to open the New Metropolitan Opera in 1966; the work sank under the weight of expectations, technical problems and Franco Zefferelli's over-blown production. Depression followed.

Despite and Still, Op. 41 came afterwards in 1968. Here sung by Dominic Sedgwick, they are starker and more intense, harmonically more daring and going into remoter places than Barber's earlier published songs. Sedgwick and Perez are superb in the highly charged neo-Expressionist first song, and in each one they mine the dark edges of the music, creating strong powerful stuff. Perhaps less immediate and crowd-pleasing than other Barber songs, they deserve to be heard more and are finely rendered here.

Barber's final published songs, Three Songs, Op. 45 were written in 1972 for Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, who evidently loved them but was prevent from performing them by illness. Jess Dandy sings them with intense, focused tone which seems to emphasise the bleakness of the music. Less expressionistly hard edged then Despite and Still, there is an austerity to these and an intense melancholy, even in the more decorative second song.

For the second disc, Perez and his merry band of singers turn to Barber's posthumously published songs. Most of these are early, some pre-dating his first published songs and others fitting in the later gaps. We begin with William Thomas in Three Songs: The Words from Old England which seem to visit similar territory to the Opus 2 songs. Two Songs of Youth might only date from 1925 but as sung here by Julien Van Mellaerts they have a very mature quality about them. Some songs including the striking Watchers (Jess Dandy), A Slumber Song of the Madonna (Soraya Mafi), and Two Poems of the Wind (Fleur Barron) were sung by his aunt Louise Homer.

Other songs are later, In the Dark Pinewood (Fleur Barron) from 1937 and Who Carries Corn and Crown (William Thomas) from 1942. In the Dark Pinewood is one of a group of songs setting further poems from Joyce's Chamber Music from which Barber selected the texts for the Opus 10 songs, the others being Strings in the earth and air (Louise Kemeny) from 1935 and Of that so sweet imprisonment (Louise Kemeny). Perez places the three Joyce settings together, creating a striking grouping and making you wonder why Barber didn't do more with these three. 

The second disc ends with two of Barber's major works. First Julien Van Mellaerts joins the Navarra String Quartet for Dover Beach, Barber's 1931 setting of words by Matthew Arnold. Van Mellaerts brings his welcome combination of mellifluous tone, care for the poetry and fine diction to the performance, ensuring that every word matters yet the whole beautifully sung. 

Then Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Written in 1948 for Eleanor Steber, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky, it is heard here in the composer's piano version. Whilst the work is commonly sung by a soprano, the text is written for a male child (it is the mature James Agee's nostalgic picture of his childhood) and the work is sometimes taken by a tenor. Here Nicky Spence and Dylan Perez make a fine partnership, with Spence bringing a lovely attention to detail in the words yet always with a fine shape to the phrase. Reduced down to just a piano, the accompaniment allows for intimacy from both performers, Spence confiding in us. Of course, a mature tenor voice cannot provide the sheer naivety of a lyric soprano, but Spence reconfigures the work and settle easily into his mature persona's nostalgic remembrance.

This is probably a set to dip into rather than listen to from beginning to end, but the discs are full of good things. Dylan Perez has assembled a rich array of young vocal talent, and each singer brings a particular quality to their own songs. You might have a favourite recording of more recorded items like the Hermit Songs, but the performances on this disc are never less than consummate, engaging and characterful. And orchestrating it all is Perez himself, deftly moving between Barber's various styles and always in sympathy with his singers. 

A magnificent achievement.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) - The Complete Songs - Resonus Classics

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) - The Complete Songs

Fleur Barron (mezzo soprano)
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Samantha Clarke (soprano)
Jess Dandy (contralto)
Louise Kemény (soprano)
Soraya Mafi (soprano)
Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone)
Dominic Sedgwick (baritone)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
William Thomas (bass)
Navarra String Quartet
Dylan Perez (piano)
Recorded in The Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on 21–23 July & 2–4 August 2021
RESONUS CLASSICS RES10301 2CDS [78:14, 80:26]

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