BARBER: Andromache’s Farewell. Antony and Cleopatra (Two Scenes). Vanessa (Two Scenes). Knoxville–Summer of 1915. Three Songs

BARBER: Andromache’s Farewell. Antony and Cleopatra (Two Scenes). Vanessa (Two Scenes). Knoxville–Summer of 1915. Three Songs. Roberta Alexander, soprano; Edo DeWaart conducting Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. ETCETERA KTC-1145 [DDD]; 60:42 Produced by Jacob Bogaart

For the casual listener who is not familiar with most of the pieces offered here, this new release contains a gorgeous array of music, presented in rich, heartfelt performances. However, the serious Barber enthusiast will already have nearly all music in performances that are superior both vocally and orchestrally.

The real novelty here consists of three songs from the 1930s, usually done with piano only — “I Hear an Army,” “Nocturne,” and “Sure On This Shining Night” — presented in orchestrated versions done by the composer   The three are wonderful songs — the third is quintessential early-Barber elegiac lyricism — and take on new dimensions in these settings, which will also probably give them a wider appeal.

Unlike most Barber recordings, the selections here can toward his late music, which is not as well-known, though with time that is becoming less true. Andromache’s Farewell and Antony. and Cleopatra date from the 1960s and both deal with ancient, exotic subjects. Essentially the music is cut from the same stylistic cloth, featuring the powerfully dramatic opulently orchestrated language — sinuously chromatic, subtly inflected, and angular at times — found in many of Barber’s late works. This music demonstrates that the composer is creative power remained strong during those late years and reveals an aspect of his creative personality–a capacity for tragic grandeur–equal in importance to the hypersensitive melancholia of his earlier work. The two brief excerpts from Vanessa and the ever-popular Knoxville round off the program nicely.

Of course, Barber often had the benefit of the finest. performers around. Martina Arroyo championed Andromache’s Farewell, recording it with the New York Philharmonic under Thomas Schippers — probably the most effective and sympathetic Barber conductor to date — in a stunning performance currently available on Sony MPK-46727, a disc that also features Eleanor Steber’s classic rendition of Knoxville. And the role of Cleopatra was actually written for Leontyne Price, who recorded the two excerpts, again with Thomas Schippers conducting — a glorious performance that must be regarded as definitive — on an RCA disc that, inexplicably, has yet to be reissued on CD. A lovely, appropriately boyish reading of Knoxvillewas the pairing on that LP. I understand that Miss Price also recorded one of the twoVanessa excerpts on an even earlier LP, in a stupendous reading, but I have not heard this myself. On the complete Vanessa recording RCA 7899-2RG; see Fanfare 14 3, pp. 144-5), the two arias are sung magnificently by Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber respectively. And, along with those already mentioned, two excellent recordings of Knoxville — each with especially fine orchestral accompaniments, in addition to wonderful singing — have appeared recently — one, with Dawn Upshaw (Fanfare 14.:4, p. 445) and the other with Sylvia McNair (Fanfare 15:6, pp. 111-2) 

So there have been some formidable precedents set, in the face of which one must conclude that Roberta Alexander’s not really stand up, sensitive, intelligent, and musical as they are. Her chief shortcoming is a flutter in her vibrato that is awfully hard to ignore. In re-reading my review of her fine CD of Barber songs from about four years ago (Fanfare 12:4, pp. 84-86), I see that I noted this defect but made light of it. The problem has definitely become worse since then. Perhaps in an effort to conceal it, the sonic ambience has been made quite reverberant — especially in the orchestrated songs — often rendering the words indistinct. Furthermore, the orchestral contributions — quite important in most of the selections — are often disappointing, with the blurring of contrapuntal. detail and rhythmic relationships often encountered in earlier Barber recordings, before the music had become so familiar. The two most perspicacious Barber conductors — Schippers and Andrew Schenck — both died prematurely, robbing us of what might have been a real Barber performing tradition. I’m afraid that Edo DeWaart hasn’t fully digested this music yet (although to be fair I should note that the introduction to the first A and C scene is breathtaking).  

There, now this reads like a negative review. Yes, everything I said above is true. But the performances are good — probably good enough to satisfy most everyone who doesn’t already know the older recordings. I suspect. this disc will make a lot of listeners happy — I enjoyed listening to it repeatedly, despite my reservations. And this is one hour of non-stop great music — enormously satisfying and richly evocative o£ mood, emotion, time, and place.