Price sings Barber

Did you know that the first performance of Barber’s Hermit Songs is available on disc? You’ll find it on an RCA collection from 1994: Leontyne Price, with Barber at the piano in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, October 30, 1953. Often a first performance is, well, a first performance, meaning not as secure as subsequent performances. But this premiere is very impressive, with Price sounding in lovely voice, and Barber commanding the piano parts elegantly. Nothing extraordinary to report if you are thinking about the recording as a resource for insights into interpretation – for example, tempi seem quite in the range that is commonly chosen. The only unusual tempo is in one of the four additional songs that are also included: they race through “The Daisies”  in a mere 49 seconds here; compare the 1:20 duration of the performance by Thomas Hampson and John Browning on the DG collection of Barber’s songs. The Price album also includes Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and two excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra. Price is Price – the voice is gorgeous and she can do pretty much whatever she wants. But her voice is essentially large, and her Knoxville is a bit on the diva-ish side. I prefer Upshaw’s recording on Nonesuch, though the New Philarmonia under Schippers on the Price disc has Upshaw’s Zinman and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s beat for sheer beauty of sound.  Two excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra close out Price’s disc. I found “Give Me Some Music” to be rather less effective than “Give Me My Robe”, which is more tightly focused, and has more memorable musical material. One small detail regarding the live Hermit Songs recording – we sometimes fuss over whether contemporary audiences are too inhibited about applause compared with 18th or 19th century listeners. I was surprised to note that the audience applauds warmly after every one of the ten songs in Barber’s cycle! I would have thought that reverent silence would be the rule in 1953, but it is not so easy to generalize about these things.

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