Songs by Samuel Barber: Gerald Finley & Julius Drake

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Barber
There’s nae lark
The Beggar’s Song
In the dark pinewood
Hermit Songs, Op.29
Rain has fallen; Sleep now; I hear an army [from Opus 10]
Mélodies passagères, Op.27
The daisies; With rue my heart is laden; Bessie Bobtail [from Op.2]
Nocturne; Sure on this shining night [from Op.13]
Dover Beach, Op.3

Gerald Finley (baritone) & Julius Drake (piano)
Members of The Aronowitz Ensemble [Magnus Johnston & Nadia Wijzenbeek (violins), Jennifer Stumm (viola) & Guy Johnston (cello)]

Recorded December 2005 & February 2007 in undisclosed location(s)


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: February 2008
CD No: HYPERION CDA67528
Duration: 62 minutes

One of the glories of Hyperion’s estimable catalogue is its range of song recordings. The complete Schubert edition, with a similar one for Schumann following on behind, the French Song project, including some intégrales of individual composers, others in selection, some little-known or little–recorded, amount to a triumph for the company. In addition Hyperion has published numerous imaginatively compiled collections. The artists are discriminatingly chosen, with the emphasis on Anglo-Saxon singers and emerging talent. Graham Johnson is the central pivot, as both accompanist and provider of illuminating booklet-notes, though other distinguished accompanists do appear on the honours board.

This selection of songs by Samuel Barber has a sensitive and potent advocate in the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, supported by Julius Drake, who, as always, responds to every nuance of the composer’s piano writing. The pillars of their recital are the two song-cycles and “Dover Beach”. “Hermit Songs”, first performed by Leontyne Price, form a cycle through diversity. The scraps of poetry written by mediaeval Irish monks and scholars which are the originals of the texts Barber set embody a variety of moods and themes and his settings are equally varied. They represent an excellent showcase for Finley’s interpretative range and the potential of his voice. The vigour of the opening ‘At St Patrick’s Purgatory’ gives way in the third song ‘St Ita’s Vision’ to a tender lullaby. The absence of time-signatures permits expressive freedom of phrasing throughout the cycle, and particularly in this song. Finley sustains a long broad phrase at the lines “You I nurse are not a churl but were begot on Mary the Jewess by heaven’s light”. The piano part gradually heralds a change of mood to triumphant jubilation before subsiding to a gentle ending that Finley crowns with a delicate mezza voce. This is a formidable test in miniature for both artists.

“Dover Beach” is the other substantial work here. The performers catch ideally the ambience of Matthew Arnold’s poem, with the string quartet made up of players from the Aronowitz Ensemble producing the late-Romantic textures in a balance that marginally favours them. Finley brings out Barber’s word-painting, most vividly at “Begin … with tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in”. At the start of the last verse he unleashes a heartfelt cry of operatic proportions (“Ah, love, let us be true”), reminding us of his parallel stage career.

Songs in contrasting styles separate these major works. The disc opens with a most appealing setting of the Swinburne Scottish pastiche “There’s nae lark”, conventional in harmony and lyrical in line, with a clean octave leap to E flat, which establishes immediately Finley’s vocal command. Another previously unpublished setting, from 1936, “The Beggar’s Song”, is a witty piece in which the beggar declares with mock portentousness the merits of his own lifestyle, supported by loud fanfares on the piano which later turn to dance figurations. Finley’s characterisation is vivid and his breath control is scrutinised by several held notes, passing the test comfortably. “In the dark pinewood” is a love-song to words by James Joyce, with a characteristic stepwise rising and falling line, sensuously caressed in the intimacy of the final utterances.

Alongside these belatedly published works, songs from Opuses 2, 10 & 13 are mixed in the selection. From the earlier set “Bessie Bobtail” is graphically delivered by both artists, Housman’s “With rue my heart is laden” is suitably morbid in colour, while a refreshing blast of the wide-open spaces is provided by the setting of James Stephens’s “The Daisies”, in which Finley’s freshness of tone and spontaneity of enunciation creates just the right homespun impression of an All-American Boy at large.

There is a complete recording on Deutsche Grammophon of Barber’s songs by Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson, with the late John Browning at the piano, which I have not heard. This issue is not in direct competition and has distinct rewards in the form of expert vocalism and interpretative imagination from the union of these two artists. The recorded sound is excellent and the booklet includes complete texts.

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