Not the perfect soundtrack to the Christmas family lunch, perhaps, but the redoubtable Gerald Finley's new disc of songs by Samuel Barber is both thought-provoking and emotive.
In particular, I admire the way in which the singer has considered the sounds he created to suit this repertoire. The eeriness of so many of these numbers needs not only a beautiful voice but an even vocal production, seamless legato and the ability to respond to the text with either hollow or sharp, biting sounds, depending on the style of the song. The marriage of intelligent delivery with a lavish vocal talent is ideal and makes the disc a real winner.
Barber was evidently an avid reader of poetry and singer of considerable ability, so it is no surprise that his songs are both imaginative as textual settings and realistic as performable works. The Three Songs, Op. 2, are his earliest published examples of this form, and here receive wonderfully vivid performances from Finley. The two settings of poems by James Stephens are the best: 'The Daisies' has a simple purity about it which Finley does nothing to overcomplicate, while 'Bessie Bobtail' is both searing and sombre. The third is scarcely less effective, however: 'With rue my heart is laden' is based on a poem from A E Housman's A Shropshire Lad and Finley picks up on the darkness of Barber's B minor setting.
The composer loved Irish poetry and the Three Songs, Op. 10, are based on works from James Joyce's Chamber Music. Composed in 1939, these are amongst the highlights of the disc; indeed 'I hear an army' is by far my favourite track. It's amongst the scariest, most savage songs I've heard by any composer, largely because of the virtuosic piano writing. Julius Drake is a trusty ally for Finley in this song (as throughout the disc), both of them pushing the expressive boundaries of song performance to the limits.
Modelled on Poulenc's song output (currently being explored by the Wigmore Hall), the Mélodies passagères, Op. 27, show Barber at his most exquisite. Of the five beautifully written pieces, Un cygne finds Finley at his best. Always at home in the French language, he draws out the melodic line in long breaths, mirroring the floating action of the swan. That he is a great interpreter of songs is also shown by the restraint with which he treats the majority of the piece, only broadening out towards the end.
The well-known Hermit Songs are also magisterially performed. The ten songs take under nineteen minutes to perform and are short, pithy and hugely engaging. Over fifty years after they were first performed at Washington's Library of Congress by Leontyne Price with Barber at the piano, Gerald Finley and Julius Drake have made them sound as fresh as if they were new. The many interesting inflections the two performers bring to the works are too many to list, but the contrast between the eerie thinkling sounds of 'Church Bell at Night' and the dense religious chords of 'St Ita's Vision' give some indication of the accompanist's attention to detail, matched throughout by Finley at his best.
The disc is completed by a few other isolated songs for voice and piano, as persuasively performed as the rest, and the final track, 'Dover Beach', has the luxury of the superb four-piece Aronowitz Ensemble for accompaniment. One of the composer's earliest works, it is an eight-minute narrative of extraordinary imagination which caps off yet another brilliant song recital from Hyperion.