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.
Do the Math has posted comments on the Barber Piano Concerto. While the piece is not exactly K. 466, I don’t think it is as problematic as Iverson makes it out to be. He talks about the opening of the third movement as great movie music, and I was reminded of sitting with Steve Jaffe at a performance of some relatively obscure Copland orchestral music. I whispered to Steve, “This sounds like movie music”. He corrected me, saying “No, movie music sounds like this.” I think the same applies to the Barber.
Iverson has no patience for the episode at fig. 18 of the concerto’s finale – I wonder how he feels about the passage in the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra to which this episode is indebted – it is right out of the “game of pairs” movement. Is that just as weak?
Barber is at once overrated and underrated. His easier songs and the piano sonata are relied upon by myriad college students needing to check off the “20th century”, or “English language”, or, Lord help us, “contemporary” box on their senior recital program – used so often you would think he was considered the greatest American composer. (At least this was the case when I was an undergrad – maybe that has changed. I doubt it.) But in another perspective, he is insufficiently appreciated by those who prefer an edgier idiom. You really shouldn’t dismiss the guy. Joe Straus does not; there is an interesting take on the slow movement of the piano sonata in his recent book on Twelve-Tone Music in America, and it is nice to see Barber in a book with Wolpe and Martino, among many others.
Ives, Carter, Crumb and Reich are more important composers than Barber. (Update: read the comments for a discussion of problems with that sentence.) But I certainly wish I had written “Sure on This Shining Night”, or “Knoxville”, or the Piano Sonata, or the Adagio (and not just for the royalties!) or even the Piano Concerto.
A tale is told of Barber conferring with Szell after a rehearsal of the concerto. Barber was considering adding a whip* to the percussion in the third movement, and said to Szell, “make sure they bring the whip tomorrow.” Szell replied, “I don’t know, the orchestra didn’t play that badly.”
*Also called a slapstick – two pieces of wood, hinged and struck sharply together – it is the sound at the beginning of the Ravel G Major concerto.