Barber in baritone

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday February 19, 2008
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Every now and then a CD comes along that, no matter how challenging the music, truly qualifies as "easy listening." It's usually vocal. You don't have to keep squinting at the texts in tiny type in the little square booklets because the singer speaks them plainly into the notes. You don't have to take breaks because the material is varied, and anyway, the singer lays it all out with such conviction you're caught up in whatever song is "on." Oh, and it's beautiful in that way that everyone doesn't just agree about but instinctively knows. It's like falling into a pool of whatever you like falling into.

The latest is Gerald Finley's Songs of Samuel Barber (Hyperion). The Canadian baritone, best known here for creating the role of Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams' Doctor Atomic, lends his plush, consistently focused baritone to 27 songs by one of the most out American composers of the 20th century. For anyone who, like me, finds Barber's vocal compositions the most rewarding of all his music, the disc will come as a treasure.

The range of emotions — the tender fragility of human love, the lurking menace of a war-torn century, the indifferent presence of nature — summoned by the songs is fully reprised in the disc's last item, "Dover Beach," one of Barber's earliest compositions, which he himself sang at its premiere. Superbly accompanied by a string quartet from the Aronowitz Ensemble, Finley declaims the lines of Matthew Arnold's famous poem with a supple sense of the words' meaning, making its climax on the words "Ah, love, let us be true to one another" ring out with a tinge of the bittersweet, but no cloying sentimentality.

Hearing the Hermit Songs in a man's voice, this man's voice, is little short of a revelation. Since Leontyne Price, then an unknown, gave the songs' premiere at the Library of Congress in 1953 with Barber at the piano, the cycle has been largely the province of female singers, despite the fact that the words are clearly those of Irish monastics from the turn of the first millennium. Finley authoritatively restores them to a man's world.

There's a world of feeling in these 10 songs, and Finley, accompanied throughout by pianist Julius Drake in a way that would make Barber proud, burrows deeply into every niche. The songs with real religious bona fides — "St. Ita's Vision," "The Crucifixion," "The Praises of God" — are rendered with a big palette of vocal colors which take them far beyond the doctrinaire. The more winningly "human" songs sport a gallery of smiles. When, in "The Monk and His Cat," Finley purrs the pet's name, "Pangur, white Pangur," we discover that this is how we all want to be addressed. There's an audible wink in "Promiscuity," the epigrammatic song that whispers, "I do not know with whom Edan will sleep,/But I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone."

The smaller worlds of the Melodies passageres (Poulenc-style chansons to poems by Rilke) and the James Joyce settings of Opus 10 are served up with no less attention to detail, and Finley's remarkable way of fusing word to note comes as a potent reminder of Barber's deep love of the fine poetry he set. I held my breath before "Sure on this shining night," my favorite Barber song of all, an ecstatic setting of a rapturous James Agee poem that's harder to bring off than its simple, swelling lines would suggest. Finley hit it out of the park.

Three years ago, Finley made a powerful, daring disc of Charles Ives songs, also superbly accompanied by Drake. The pair is back with a second volume of Ives songs, Romanzo di Central Park (Hyperion). It's the best kind of fun.

The astonishing range Ives exhibits in the 30 songs on the disc — some comic, others serious — is astonishing. Finley, in even better voice than on the Barber CD, and Drake, relishing Ives' complexities, dig deep into them all.

"Romanzo di Central Park" turns out to be a send-up of Victor Herbert, whose songs, Ives commented tartly, are of the "less heard, the better" type. I predict you'll listen to Ives' parody a lot.