The songs of Samuel Barber offer the beauty of his output in microcosm. ‘Complete’ in this context used to mean the 47 songs gathered in a Deutsche Grammophon 2CD set from 1994, but there are 65 songs here, making it the most complete survey yet recorded. Most of the lesser-known and unpublished songs on CD3 date back to Barber’s student years, but he took up composing young, and was always inclined towards writing for voices and responding to poetry. He made his matchlessly evocative setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach when he was just 21 years old.
However, by the time of the Op.10 Songs, Barber’s harmonies have thickened in texture and expressionist harmony: these are heroic numbers demanding an interpreter of heroic projection, another world away from the almost painfully confessional mood of the music which has made his name such as Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Nevertheless, they paint a vivid portrait of Barber himself, who had a fine baritone voice and would delight in performing his songs while accompanying himself at the piano.
Barber could read Proust in French, Goethe in German, Dante in Italian and Neruda in Spanish, and his erudite choice of poets and poems reflected facets of his complex character: a restless melancholy on the one hand, and an impish wit on the other. His part-Irish ancestry drew him towards Joyce, Yeats and James Stephens, and his interest in his Celtic heritage prompted the writing of his best-known song-prompted the writing of his best-known song-cycle, the Hermit Songs Op.29. Much later in life, he returned to song (and to Joyce) with Despite and Still Op.41 and the Three Songs Op.45. Both collections are coloured by introspection and resignation, but they are masterpieces of the song-writer’s art.
Among his many recordings for Brilliant Classics, the pianist Filippo Farinelli has made complete surveys of the song output of Berg, Ravel, Dallapiccola and Jolivet, in conjunction with colleagues who have immersed themselves in the idiom. Here he is likewise joined by a trio of Italian singers who show themselves at home with the wistful, changeable moods of Barber the song-composer.
Few composers in the history of “art song” can compare to the figure of Samuel Barber (1910-1981), whose innate gift for lyricism found expression in his exceptional baritone voice, and who would perform any number of his songs accompanying himself at the piano.
Barber was encouraged to explore his early talent for song and the piano by his aunt Louise Homer, who was one of the Metropolitan Opera’s most famous contraltos. He was only 14 when he entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (where he would meet Gian Carlo Menotti, his future companion for much of his life) and soon dedicated himself to copious exercises in song writing. Barber possessed a cultivated erudition and a passion for the written word, both past and present: poetry, novels, autobiographies, diaries and the novelties of literary reviews of the time. This in turn assured that the texts chosen for his songs were always of the highest quality and variety, expressing facets of his complex character: a restless melancholy on the one hand, and an impish wit on the other. The texts stretch from Irish marginalia of the VIII/IX centuries to English “Georgian” poets, the French Symbolists and modernist poets writing in English who were affected by them – James Joyce amongst them –, as well as a considerable number of his American contemporaries. Performed by three excellent Italian singers, Mauro Borgioni (baritone), Leilah Dione Ezra (soprano) and Elisabetta Lombardi (mezzo soprano), who won their spurs on the most important international stages.
This project is another triumph of Filippo Farinelli, indefatigable pianist and promotor of prestigious recording projects, such as the complete songs by Jolivet, Berg, Dallapiccola and Ravel, and instrumental projects by Koechlin, Jolivet, Hindemith and Debussy.