on 15 August 2011
SAMUEL BARBER: String Quartet, Serenade, Dover beach, Songs
This is an excellent disc which, to anyone who has any interest in the works of Samuel Barber, would be a must. It covers a range of works that represent Samuel Barber's output, from his opus 1 written, when he was 18 (if not earlier) to one of his last works, his opus 45.
This is predominantly a song recital disc (being a singer himself, vocal works were an important mode of expression for Barber).
The bulk of the songs are performed by a mature Thomas Allen, a fine singer in my opinion, who here is in firm voice and gives excellently refined and expressive performances.
However the lure for me for the disc was the String Quartets. Opus 1 is of particular interest as Barber wrote it firstly with 4 movements but then edited it down to three. This leaves the Dance (allegro giocoso) as the final movement, and this is a delight. But the work I was really seeking was the string Quartet op 11 (as far as I can determine, this recording being the only one in the current catalogue). This I find somewhat surprising, as the string quartet is the original setting of the famous adagio, which was orchestrated by Barber at a later date. I find listening to the lighter quartet version here really helps focus the mind, whereas the now rather hackneyed and overplayed orchestral version tends to wash over one in a rinse of syrupy fluid. This later string quartet is also in three movements. The first movement and the adagio are 8 & 7 minutes respectively, the closing 3rd movement a brief two and half mins only. However the emotional intensity of this last movement juxtaposed to the languorous lyricism of the 2nd, the adagio, seems to sit perfectly well. It is a bit of a mystery why the work is so rarely performed.
The powerfully if slightly stridently voiced Eric Cutler and Bradley Moore ( piano) close the disc with four songs for tenor, "Despite and Still" opus 41.
This is a compilation disc. The Thomas Allen songs were recorded in 1993 @ St George's Brandon Hill, the Endellion String Quartet 1990 @ Blackheath, and the Eric Cutler @ the Lyndhurst Hall London in 2003. However the quality of the recordings are such that there is an evenness of technical excellence throughout the CD, and the varying times and locations are only obvious through reading the accompanying disc-notes. Though these notes are intelligent and informative: my one criticisms being that, even though both Allen and Cutler display excellent diction, the text of the songs, and the names poets would not have gone amiss, never more so than in Cutler's excellent interpretation of the tango-rythmed Solitary Hotel from op 41
IM Aug 11
on 30 April 2014
Samuel Barber’s primary theme is his exploration of adolescence, lost childhood and youth, according to Wilfrid Mellers (in Chapter 9 of Music in a New Found Land, 1964). Mellers believes Barber is less successful when he tries (as in the opera Vanessa) to universalize this theme in an adult way, as some kind of “idealized abstraction of an American Past”, or when he attempts big romantic gestures (as in the First Symphony). The “true Barber” emerges when his focus is on the personal, on “a specific child ‘realized’ in sound”. That’s first exemplified in his early setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach for voice and string quartet. The poem, says Mellers, expresses “that cry of a young heart, lonely in a hostile world in which Faith is extinct”.
Ah love, let us be true
To one another! For the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The poem begins with an evocation of the calm sea, with the lovers looking out from their window and seeing the lights gleaming across the Channel from the French coast. But gradually, in “the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back”, they begin to hear something else: “the eternal note of sadness”. The Sea of Faith was once all-surrounding as well, “But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”. Mellers points to “the lyrical contours of the voice part [and] the flowing sea-figuration of the strings” in Barber’s setting, as well as “the unabashed sobbing of dominant ninths at the climax” (on the words “neither joy, nor love, nor light”).
Written when Barber was just 20, Dover Beach points directly to later works where he returns to much the same theme in his uniquely personal way. In the Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954), for instance, his subject is the Man-God relationship. But it’s treated as synonymous with the child-parent relationship, leaving it entirely free of the “inflated bombast” of earlier symphonic works. Mellers boils it down to this: “Barber’s music becomes more moving – even, paradoxically, more ‘mature’ – when it is content to admit to its adolescent, childish quality”. The most characteristic example of all is a mature work, the well known "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" for soprano and orchestra.