This bounty of art songs begins with the delightfully intriguing setting of selected tidbits from James Joyce’s final novel, Finnegan’s Wake. What fun to hear “sfumastelliacinous hair” come to musical life. The charming feel of a waltz is given a decidedly on-the-nose treatment with “Tristus Tristior Tristissimus” and the unmistakeable Wagner opera quote. However, subtlety abounds with the twin utterances of “Ah dew!” where damp grass and farewell fit like a literal/literary glove. The drama is at its peak following the free-form O!’s. Samuel Barber utilizes one of any composer’s best tools: silence. Soprano Melissa Fogarty does everything up with poise and authority. Especially pleasing is pianist Marc Peloquin’s “steal” of “Par la pluie’s” tenor and tone to deftly prepare the way for Nuvoletta’s final disappearance into the ether.
Not known as a trailblazer in the 20th century (which may well explain part of Barber’s widespread performances and acclaim, preferring to—above all else—“write for myself”), Hermit Songs is a marvellous look back at centuries old Irish texts, made decidedly new in ways the authors could never have imagined. Premièred in 1953 by the composer and Leontyne Price, there was perhaps no better way of bringing this fascinating cycle into the world. Fogarty is a most worthy advocate in the 21st century with her exquisite diction, at times compelling caramel tone (notably in “Church Bell at Night”) and—along with the music—an ever-increasing intensity that draws the listener closer to the fantastic ideas set in musical gold. “The Monk and his Cat” conjures up a covey of images while its easy rolling lilt—infused with saucy feline interjections from the piano as Pangur—paints a compelling picture of living alone. The brief “Praises of God” (so often less is more …) replete with its hint of West Side Story and beautifully rendered “laudation” is the ideal prelude to “The Desire for Hermitage.” This well-balanced closing song is steeped in emotion and word painting extraordinaire: a single repeated note, coloured with subtle hues defines the notion of being alone to a T. All that could improve it would be a touch more support in the disappearing phrase endings (e.g., “near me”). Nonetheless, the truly famous last words Alone I came into the world / alone I shall go from it, linger long in memory, unwilling to bid adieu.
The remainder of the album is a collection of Barber bits and pieces laid out chronologically. The pair from Op. 13 include a zesty seniors’ moment from W.B. Yeats with its wonderful line, “We three make up a solitude,” (Op. 2) and a thoughtfully felt setting from James Agee (delicately brushed with shades of “O Holy Night”) where Peloquin brings the music to a satisfying end (Op. 3). By now, it is apparent that the microphone placement for the voice is a touch too close for comfort as the mechanics behind Fogarty’s always impressive diction are more present than anyone but her accompanist might notice in a concert hall.
Robert Graves’ veritable “Ode to He” (with its wondrous imagery) “In the Wilderness” and the title song (text also from Graves, rich with its lovesick ardour—curiously at one with this year’s production of Jane Eyre, cross-reference below) are the standouts in Despite and Still, Op. 41.
Written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who from some accounts seemed less than enthusiastic with the lean result), Three Songs adds further colourful contrasts to the preceding “Monks and Raisins” (the text by Filipino poet Jose Garcia Villa find their whimsical equivalent in sound thanks to Barber’s inventive style) even as the somewhat funereal “Now Have I Fed and Eaten Up the Rose” adds white and red to the visual palette before “A Green Lowland of Pianos” (unforgettably apt is the “artistic milkman” from poet Czeslaw Milosz’s translation of Jerzy Harasymowicz’s lines) provides some much-needed humour, following which “O Boundless, Boundless Evening”—chock-a-block full of heady imagery—recalls the mood and feel of “Rain Has Fallen.” James Joyce’s two-stanza masterpiece reminds all how less can be more. Here, a tad more understatement from both performers could only reinforce that especially important notion when bringing Barber’s vision of the Irish genius’ deepest feelings to life. JWR