BARBER: Songs – Gerald Finley, baritone/ Julius Drake, piano/ Aronowitz Ensemble – Hyperion

by | Jan 16, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BARBER: Songs – Gerald Finley, baritone/ Julius Drake, piano/ Aronowitz Ensemble – Hyperion CDA67528, 62:17 ***(*):

The latest issue of Gramophone magazine (Jan. 2008) has this as the Editor’s Choice. I must say I was a little shocked at seeing this accolade, for despite the many virtues in Finley’s performances, to my mind this recording does not stand up to the praise. We have yet to hear the perfect Barber song album. Even the much-lauded and award-winning set by Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson some years ago (1994) was to my mind marred by some substandard soprano stinging; Hampson was the real star of that set. And where is Studer these days?

The sound on this new Hyperion release is superior, as you would expect; there is more resonance and a closer feeling to the performers. But the old DGG sound was very good, and even though it was recorded at a slightly lower level, this is nothing that a volume boost cannot cure. I am not sure why Finley decided to break up certain opus numbers either. “Bessie Bobtail”, that devastating song that ends Op.2 is given as the forth track here, while the companions “The Daisies” and “With Rue My Heart is Laden” are given towards the end of the recital. Nothing wrong with this in principle, as they do not form a cycle as do the Hermit Songs, but neither does the breakup illumine anything about the songs either. Finley transposes these songs of course, and that is common practice if a certain performer wants to sing these, but even though it is interesting to have the Hermit Songs sung by a baritone (they were written for and most often performed by a soprano), and this is one of the better performances on the disc, the lower sonority tends to color the songs differently, and I am not at all convinced that the music itself responds as well to this voice. This is not true for all of Barber’s songs by any means, but it is noticeable to me here.

But what bothers me on this album are some of the mannerisms that Finley adopts. He has a penchant for starting many notes sans vibrato, and then breaking into it after a few seconds, not unlike many period performance vocalists. In this case it can make the tone of his voice, a robust and powerful one to be sure, sound out of tune and rather wincing even if it is in reality neither. There is a certain affectation in some of the interpretations, as if he was trying to impart meaning that would not otherwise be there. Barber was a fastidious and clever craftsman, and never wrote a note that was not needed or superfluous, so superficial attempts at emoting do not add to the pleasure of his music. Just compare Thomas Hampson in this music, the aforementioned “Bessie Bobtail” to understand how Hampson seems to have an innate understanding that Finley seems to lack. For a while I thought it was a matter of nationality, but now I see it more as a difference in approach—Finley simply has a different way of vocalizing here that I see as more deficient than Hampson’s. And of course Hampson has the magnificent John Browning, a friend of Barber’s, who undoubtedly had all sorts of helpful hints and suggestions about interpretation, though I must say that Julius Drake plays with great authority for Finley.

So should you consider this? By all means, if you are a Barber fan like me, you will have to have it, and Finley’s many and considered fans will want it also. There are too few Barber albums around to ignore this one, and the enlightened inclusion of the early Dover Beach in a superb performance makes it almost mandatory. But I wish it had been more, and we still await the definitive Barber album.
There’s nae lark
The Beggar’s Song
Ion the dark pinewood
Bessie Bobtail
Hermit Songs (complete)
Rain has fallen
Sleep now
I hear an army
Melodies passageres (complete)
The Daisies
With rue my heart is laden
Sure on this shining night
Dover Beach

— Steven Ritter

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