BARBER: Songs (complete). Leontyne Price Sings Baber. BARBER: Choral Music.

BARBER: The Songs (complete). Cheryl Studer, sOprano; Thomas Hampson, baritone; John Browning, piano; Emerson String Ouartet. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOpHON 435 887-2 [DDD]; two discs: 5324, 56:26. Produced by Pal Christian Moe, Wolfgang Midehner, and Max Wilcox.

Ten Unpublished Songs. Three Songs, Op. 2. Dover Beach, Op. 3. Three Songs, Op. 10.Four Songs, Op. 13.   Two Songs, Op. 18.   Nuvoletta Op. 25   Melodies passagères, Op. 27. Hermit Songs, Op. 29. Despite and Still, Op. 41. Three Songs, Op. 45.

LEONTYNE PRICE SINGS BARBER. Leontyne Price, soprano; Samuel Barber, piano; Thomas Schippers conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestral. RCA VICTOR GOLD SEAL 09026-61983-2 (ADD); 62:41. Produced by John Pfeiffer.

From SongsOp. 2: The DaisiesFrom SongsOp. 10Sleep NowFrom Songs, Op. 13:  Nocturne.  Knoxville: Summer of 1915Op. 24.   Nuvoletta Op. 25Hermit SongsOp. 29.Antony and Cleopatra Op. 40: (two scenes). [Live performance at the Library of Congress Oct. 30, 1953.]

BARBER: Choral Music. Timothy Brown conducting the Cambridge University Chamber Choir, Thomas Ades, piano. GAMUT CD-535 [DDD]; 50:53. Produced by Clive Bright, Barbara Fairs, Martin Bright. (Distributed by Allegro Imports.)

Two Choruses, Op. 8;  Agnus Dei, Op. 11. From Songs, Op. 19: A Nun Takes the Veil; Sure on This Shining Night. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15. Reincarnations, Op. 16. From Hermit Songs, Op. 29: The Monk and His Cat.Vanessa, Op. 32 (Excerpt) Antony and Cleopatra, Op. 40  (Two Excerpts)Two Choruses, Op. 42

The music of Samuel Barber is more “beautiful,” as this word is generally understood by the average music lover, than that of any other composer (O.K., I’ll say any recent composer). This gives his work a tremendous universal appeal and accounts for the steady increase in performances and recordings as musicians and listeners become more thoroughly acquainted with it. It is only a matter of time, I believe, before most of his output achieves the popularity of the Adagio for Strings, simply because so much of it is comparable with regard to the nature of its attractions.

Listeners who have a bias toward instrumental music and think of the Essays for orchestra, symphonies, concertos, and a few chamber works as the backbone of Barber’s output are quite mistaken, as these three releases demonstrate. It is not that Barber was primarily a vocal composer, but rather, a literary composer. With all due respect for the many virtues of his abstract instrumental works, his great creative gift was fundamentally triggered by the moods and emotions evoked by texts that appealed to him, which he was then able to project into music with uncanny appositeness. Counting by Opus numbers, nearly half his output utilizes literary texts — more than half if one adds instrumental works with literary connotations in their titles.   .

The three releases under discussion here, taken together, constitute more than a third of Barber’s entire oeuvre, distributed throughout his career, and truly embody his aesthetic worldview. Obviously, the new two-disc DG release — subtitled, for reasons that escape me,Secrets of the Old, after a not terribly significant or representative song from Op. 13 — is the headline item of this review and a Want List definite, presenting Barber’s forty-seven songs in thoughtfully conceived and lovingly executed performances, beautifully captured on recording. Clearly it will put all previous Barber song collections in the shade. But the Leontyne Price disc is also indispensable, as hers was one of the composer’s favorite voices and the one for which the Hermit Songs and Antony and Cleopatra were originally intended and for which the latter, at least, was ideally suited. And the choral disc is an extremely enjoyable program that brings to light a number of pieces of the first rank that are often overlooked simply because the chorus — with and without piano accompaniment — is viewed as a peripheral medium from the mainstream perspective. So I am afraid that Barber enthusiasts had better prepare to plunk down some money, because each of these issues is pretty hard to resist. In fact, not just Barber enthusiasts: This music has such appeal that it is difficult to imagine who wouldn’t find these discs irresistible — perhaps those who listen only to music composed before 1750, those who cannot tolerate the sound of the singing voice, and those who are interested only in experimental music.

One of the chief curiosities of the DG set is the first appearance of ten early, unpublished songs. Note that only two of these songs pre-date Barber’s published music; the others were contemporaneous with the Op. 2 and Op. 10 groups, as well as with the Adagio, Essay No. I , and First Symphony, for example. Yet I must report with some disappointment that, for the most part, these songs leave one with respect for Barber’s judgment in omitting them from his official list of works, as only one or two — “Of That So Sweet Imprisonment” and perhaps “Strings in the Earth and Air” (both Joyce settings) — galvanize one’s attention. The others, while pretty enough, remain within the conventions of the English-language romantic art-song genre of the time, with its sensibility of milquetoast gentility. “The Daisies,”  the earliest song from Op. 2, shares this quality as well, but is soon followed by the Brahmsian elevation of “With Rue My Heart Is Laden,” and from there on the standard is maintained at an exceedingly high level that some might call greatness. 

A number of commentators, including Barber himself, have insisted that his style never changed substantially, but I think this is not true, as is clearly evident in listening to this chronological survey of his songs. I believe that a new sensibility, fueled by a number of artistic and musical influences, entered Barber’s music in 1942 with the Op. 18 songs, which followed on the heels of the fervent monumentality of the Essay No. 2. At this point, the rather humorless, somewhat straitlaced, exquisitely sensitive and high-toned Anglo-Saxon quest for “beauty” (which I don’t mean in any way to disparage) was amplified-not replaced–by a lighter, more relaxed vein of feeling, characterized by humor, a bit of irony, and greater comfort with rhythmic irregularity and harmonic dissonance-all of which can be characterized as “French” in character, although sometimes with a Stravinskian accent (listen to “The Praises of God” from the Hermit Songs) and sometimes with the unmistakable influence of “lifetime companion” Gian Carlo Menotti (listen to Nuvoletta for but one example). By the mid 1950s these elements, along with a newly displayed taste for ancient Greek and Roman subjects, treated with sumptuous exotic grandeur, were more fully integrated within Barber’s palette, forming his mature expressive language. The Mélodies PassagèresHermit Songs,Antony and Cleopatra, and other post-1942 compositions are not quite as totally in-your-face accessible as the earlier music, but, given a little time and attention, offer profoundly rewarding and deeply moving listening experiences.

I am not saying that every piece here is a masterpiece; I happen not to be terribly fond ofNuvoletta; and some others, including even a few of the Hermit Songs, seem silly to me. Each listener is sure to have his own preferences. My particular favorites are the newly discovered “Of That So Sweet Imprisonment,” “Bessie Bobtail” from Op. 2, “Rain Has Fallen” from Op. 10, which is sung absolutely gloriously by Thomas Hampson, the widely beloved “Sure On This Shining Night” and “Nocturne” from Op. 13, “Un cygne” from Mélodies Passagères, and “St. Ida’s Vision” and “The Crucifixion” from the Hermit Songs. Placed out of chronological sequence on the recording, but earliest of all these favorites, is Dover Beach, the astonishingly youthful setting of Matthew Arnold’s eloquent and profoundly pessimistic poem for baritone and string quartet. Here the twenty-one-year-old composer captures with amazingly precocious insight the emotional and philosophical nuances of these somber verses. Unfortunately, the rendition here suffers from improper balance between baritone Hampson and the string quartet, so that the voice is buried within the strings — perhaps the only blemish of this otherwise splendid production. Barber’s own 1935 recording as baritone still remains unexcelled, despite a number of other formidable efforts. As far as I am concerned, these constitute some of the most unforgettable vocal music in the English language.

Throughout the set, Studer and Hampson apply their gorgeous vocal endowments to this music with great sympathy and artistry, resulting in performances that match or surpass all previous recorded attempts (except for Dover Beach, as noted above). John Browning’s contribution as pianist, enriched by long familiarity with Barber and his music, imbues the accompaniments with a consistent conception that, in its way, unifies the entire collection.

The long-awaited Leontyne Price reissue disc is a natural complement to the new Studer/ Hampson release. As noted earlier, she and her voice were important factors in Barber’s career as a vocal composer. Available for the first time on recording is the world premiere performance of the Hermit Songs, done, along with four other songs, at the Library of Congress in October 1953 — one year before the famous studio recording — again with the composer as pianist — that has long loomed as the definitive performance of this cycle (currently available on Sony MPK-46727). The sound quality is, of course, better on the studio recording, and the performances are more secure, but some nice touches of spontaneity emerge from this concert document. Incidentally, the reading of “The Daisies” is something of a revelation, as Price and Barber give it a quick, almost casual lightheartedness that is quite different from the way we are accustomed to hearing it. Though Knoxville was never “hers,” Price characterized the work with a boyish innocence that penetrated more deeply than many other otherwise superb versions. Knoxville has been the beneficiary of many excellent recorded performances, but Price’s is as fine as anyone’s, although the level of background hiss on this 1968 recording — though not really damaging — is too high not to mention. For some reason, this problem does not seem to affect the two Antony and Cleopatra scenes. Despite its unpromising beginnings, the 1966 opera has since been steadily winning admirers and vindicating itself as one of the composer’s mature masterpieces, and Price’s towering performances of these two scenes have been a significant factor in rehabilitating its reputation. Listeners not yet familiar with the opera, or with the dramatic scene Andromache’s Farewell or the choral cantata The Lovers, have major musical epiphanies awaiting them. 

It is difficult to imagine that anyone interested in the recordings discussed thus far would fail to be equally intrigued by the program of Barber’s choral music offered by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. As I have often observed, Barber’s choral works, such as thePrayers of Kierkegaard and the just-mentioned cantata The Lovers (both on Koch International 3-7125-2H1), are among his greatest compositions. These two happen to be large works but, as with the solo vocal music, the smaller items are no less rewarding. Three Reincarnationsa cappella settings of three Irish poems collected by James Stephens, are much loved by listeners familiar with the superb rendition by the Gregg Smith Singers on an old Everest LP. Dating from about the same time as the op. 13 songs, they exhibit a comparable lyrical poignancy and directness. All three are delightful, but the third, “The Coolin,” is one of those glimpses into pure “beauty.” Another piece from the same period is A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, a deeply moving setting of the antiwar poem by Stephen Spender. The disc also provides an opportunity to hear the choral arrangement of Adagio for Strings, entitled Agnus Dei. As lovely as the piece is for strings — quartet and large ensemble versions — it is an absolute natural for unaccompanied choir, underlining the neo-Renaissance implications of its pseudo-ecclesiastical effect. I notice that this version of the work is rapidly gaining popularity, as the number of recent recordings indicates. The other significant items on this disc are first recordings, I believe, of Two Choruses, op. 8 (from the mid 1930s) and Two Choruses, op. 42 (from 1969). Religious feelings, as expressed through the sensibilities of poets — as opposed to sacred texts themselves — inspired some of Barber’s best music. A particularly haunting but little-known example is “Twelfth Night” from the op. 42 pair, a setting of a poem by Laurie Lee. The other items — excerpts and alternative arrangements (wait till you hear “Sure On This Shining Night” sung by chorus) — all contribute to a disc that is a pleasure to hear from beginning to end. The performances are excellent technically, the harmonic and contrapuntal motion clear and transparent. However, the interpretations are a little pale and undercharacterized, and could benefit from a bit more warmth, flexibility, and humanity.