The Highs and Lows of DG’s Barber Songs Reissue

Barber songs

BARBER: A Slumber Song of the Madonna; Love’s Caution; Of That So Sweet Imprisonment; Strings in the Earth and Air; 4 Songs, Op. 13; 2 Songs, Op. 18; Nuovoletta; Hermit Songs, Op. 29 / Cheryl Studer, soprano; John Browning, pianist. There’s Nae Lark; Love at the Door; Serenader; Night Wanderer; The Beggar’s Song; In the Dark Pinewood; 3 Songs, Op. 2; 3 Songs, Op. 10; Mélodies Passagères, Op. 27; Despite and Still, Op. 41; 3 Songs, Op. 45 / Thomas Hampson, baritone; John Browning, pianist. Dover Beach / Thomas Hampson, baritone; Emerson String Quartet / Deutsche Grammophon 0289 435 8672 6 (available for download at

Samuel Barber, though composed in many forms, was at his best in smaller works. His symphonies are not part of the standard repertoire and his two operas, though occasionally revived (because most opera audiences like tonal goop even if it goes nowhere), are not big favorites. Yet in smaller frameworks—his shorter string quartets, the three Essays for Orchestra, his piano pieces, his mini-cantatas Knoxville Summer of 1915 and Andromache’s Farewell and in these wonderful songs—he was simply magnificent, the equal of any composer still writing in a tonal style so late in the 20th century.

Which brings us to this superb collection, originally recorded and issued in 1994. At that time, still the height of the CD era, it was packaged beautifully with a booklet containing all of the song lyrics. But then, possibly because it had a limited appeal, it disappeared from the catalog until it resurfaced in 2002. Here, it was still in physical form but with a really bad-looking cover and no booklet, no lyrics. Now we have the original cover restored but it’s not even available as physical CDs, only as digital downloads. Here you go, stupid consumer. Sam Barber’s songs. No frills. Download ‘em yourself, put ‘em on a jump stick or in the cloud for all we care. Oh, and don’t look for the song lyrics because we figure if you don’t care we don’t have to care either.

Real classy, DG.

Now, I’m not going to argue that every great recording ever made should be available on physical discs in an era when it seems as though the majority (but not an overwhelming majority) of classical music lovers seem to like listening through inferior computer speakers or, worse yet, those even cheaper-sounding ear buds on their Smart Phones, but for those of us who really love the music we simply aren’t going to put up with this kind of disrespect. Why should we? But of course, the big record corporations (and all of them are big corporations nowadays…the days of the small indie labels are virtually over) are only interested in profit margins, not providing a service, and let’s face it, issuing classical music is a service to the public. In the old days of physical LPs, and then in the earliest years of physical CDs, the costs (which were always fairly steep) of recording and issuing classical works were for the most part offset by the staggering high sales of pop effluvium. The Beatles paid for that Rudolf Kempe Strauss set you have or that John Ogden performance of the Busoni Piano Concerto (in fact, if you look through the original booklet of the latter, you’ll see John Lennon sitting in the control room with Ogden listening to the playback). The Rolling Stones paid for that Birgit Nilsson recording of Elektra you love so much or those great Dvořák Symphony recordings you just picked up by Istvan Kertesz. Jefferson Airplane and the Guess Who paid for those Arthur Rubinstein and classical symphony recordings you bought on RCA. Yes, there were a handful of artists who sold in large enough quantities that they paid for themselves—Maria Callas, Virgil Fox, Glenn Gould, Sir Georg Solti, Luciano Pavarotti—but for the most part, the classics always had to be subsidized, and once the market fell out in the late 1980s-early ‘90s, largely due to our education system that teaches kids that no “old music” is worth bothering with, not even jazz of the 1960s, there was even less of a market to pretend to placate.

And so we have these very precious pearls, some of Sam Barber’s very greatest music given some of the finest performances you will ever hear in your lifetime, strewn into the ether of the blogosphere like leftover scraps of food from dinner at the Rothschilds’. It is almost criminal, because this is certainly the finest and most moving music Barber ever wrote. Each song on this two-CD set is a precious jewel, and in the hands of these three exquisite artists (plus the Emerson String Quartet on Dover Beach) they glow not with the light of a harsh glare but with the warmth of a rising or setting sun.

There isn’t a weak song in the entire collection. From the earlier, previously unpublished songs through the late Op. 45, every piece is a jewel in its own right. As one goes through the entire collection, one becomes aware of the two singers’ individual strengths. Studer, with her 24-karat golden timbre and unique way of caressing a lyric line, brings out the words of each song like a master poetry reader. She is very “internal” in her interpretation of each word, each phrase, each song. She is the very muse of the poet. Hampson, though not at all brusque, takes a different approach. He acts out the lyrics of each song, presenting you with the character behind the words. It is not a large difference, but it is striking: one singer is the poet’s representative, the other represents the characters the poet is writing about. Both are valid, and they complement each other splendidly.

Interestingly, the songs are not altogether divided evenly: Studer gets 21 songs, Hampson 25, and most of Hampson’s songs are the longer ones, but it is a tribute to the strong impression each singer makes that it sounds as if they are splitting the album evenly.

The sound quality is virtually perfect: warm and contained, the piano apparently miked discretely from the singers, around whose voices we hear just a touch of natural ambience to give their upper notes shimmer as well as warmth. Both singers are still with us today, but neither can sing now with the kind of awe-inspiring tonal allure they display on this album. They were at the height of their powers in 1994. They had everything: beautiful voices, consummate musicianship, the ability to communicate and a manner of singing that was remarkably intimate for such large trained voices.

Their only deficiency was an occasional lack of clarity of diction, but this is not unusual among opera singers and particularly among sopranos once their voices ascend above the staff. (Of course, no one can understand Bruce Springsteen without a lyric sheet, either.) This is precisely the reason why I feel it important to have the words of these songs available to read as you listen, and this is why I am so angry at DG for their slovenly approach to this reissue.

But be of good cheer! I have scoured the internet for you, and have come up with the words to all of the poems/songs performed except one, The Queen’s Face on the Summery Coin, which apparently is unavailable online. If you click Barber song lyrics you can access the whole shebang as an Adobe PDF file for onscreen reading or download.

As for the recordings, well, yes, they are treasures and everyone who loves great art songs should have them.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed survey of the intersection of jazz and classical music


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