Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber: Historic Performances—1938 and 1953

Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber: Historic Performances—1938 and 1953 • Leontyne Price (sop); Samuel Barber (bar, pn) • BRIDGE 9156, mono, ADD (79:43 )

POULENC Quatre Poèmes de Paul Eluard. C’est ainsi que tu es
BARBERHermit Songs. Sleep Now. The Daisies. Nocturne. Nuvoletta
SAUGUETLa VoyanteFAURÉ Au bord de l’eau (Live: Library of Congress, 10/30/53)1
SCHUMANN, MENDELSSOHN, C.P.E. BACH, BRAHMS, SCHUBERT Six Lieder. Six Folk Song Arrangements (Broadcast: Curtis Institute, 12/26/38)2

This release presents two historical documents likely to be of interest to serious devotees of Samuel Barber and/or Leontyne Price: the complete recital at the Library of Congress where the 26-year-old Price, accompanied at the piano by Samuel Barber, gave the world premiere of the latter’s Hermit Songs, commissioned for this soprano to present on this occasion; completing the generously filled CD is one of a number of broadcast vocal recitals from the 1930s, which featured baritone Samuel Barber accompanying himself at the piano in varied programs of Lieder, along with lighter fare. However, chiefly because of their compromised sound quality, and less so because of blemishes attributable to their provenance as live performances, these are not likely to be the casual—or even serious—listener’s recorded performances of choice for the repertoire selected. Even Barber specialists may be content with the BMG/RCA release (09026-61983-2), “Leontyne Price Sings Barber,” which includes all the Barber selections from the Library of Congress recital, along with 1968 studio recordings with orchestra of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Two Scenes from Antony and Cleopatra (an especially fine recording).

What is most striking to me about the Barber performances at the Library of Congress recital is how hurriedly some of these songs are taken. Perhaps this should not be so surprising, because in initial presentations of their works to the public, composer-performers often take somewhat hasty tempos, perhaps reflecting an anxious insecurity not to try the patience of the audience by dwelling excessively on details, but rather to convey a broader sense of overall impact. It remains for later generations of performers to apply their interpretive artistry by adjusting their pacing with more attention to subtle nuances and details. Listen and compare, for example, the approach to the Hermit Songs taken by Cheryl Studer and John Browning on DGG’s complete set of Barber songs—not that Studer is “better” than Price by any means—and note the difference between the presentation of brand-new material and music whose greatness has already been pretty well established.

On the other hand, notice Price and Barber’s rendition of “The Daisies,” an early (1927) song from the composer’s Op. 2 group. By taking this often-heard song much faster than we have become accustomed to hearing, they create a virtually different entity from one that often sounds unbearably dainty.

The Poulenc songs make for a lovely and varied group. The Frenchman and the American seemed to be rather compatible, to the extent that two composers can be. This was not the only time that one performed the music of the other. After all, it was just the year before that Pierre Bernac and Poulenc had given the premiere of Barber’s Mélodies Passagères—a fine performance issued on recording by New World Records. Here Price and Barber display considerable subtlety and artistry of their own. Sauget’s 1932 cycle of five songs, whose title is translated as The Fortune Teller, are very lightweight—much more so than the Poulenc group. Pleasantly entertaining, they are nicely done here.

Some listeners may not have known that for several years Barber considered earning his living as a singer. His exquisitely sensitive performance of his own Dover Beach appeared on the same New World release noted above, and is an essential entry in the Barber discography. Here the 28-year-old baritone is heard accompanying his own singing in a recital of standard Lieder, along with a group of folksongs. Less historically-minded listeners may snicker at the outdated style of these folksong arrangements, as well as at Barber’s rather genteel, high-toned manner of vocal delivery. But ridicule of outdated conventions is a cheap source of laughs. The short, quasi-light-classical vocal recital was a popular entertainment staple during the 1930s, especially on radio. Given the genre, Barber acquitted himself with plenty of skill and musicianship, carrying off the self-accompaniment aspect—a challenge not to be underestimated—with considerable subtlety.

A notable asset of this release is the annotation: an essay on the Library of Congress recital by Anne McLean, a commentary on the music heard at this recital by Norman A. Middleton, Jr., and a discussion of Barber’s brief career as a recitalist by Patrick C. Mason. Each of these essays is both interesting an informative.