To the average concertgoer, Samuel Barber is perhaps not best known as a composer of songs. With the exception of Dover Beach and Knoxville, Summer of 1915, it is his purely instrumental pieces that generally get top billing. However, as singers and specialists in American art song have known for a long time, he is in fact one of the most significant contributors to the genre, adding many colors to the autumnal vocal bounty of mid 20th-century Americana.
The Florestan Recital Project, a Boston-based organization of singers and pianists dedicated to “exploring and presenting the full spectrum of song repertoire,” has taken it upon itself to present the entire collection of Barber’s songs for voice and piano — some 75 altogether, including a number of unpublished works. The second program in this three-concert series, which took place on September 26th in Tufts University’s Distler Performance Hall, demonstrated just how effective and enlightening a well-organized and skillfully performed exploration of a single composer’s output can be.
The songs on this program were presented more or less in chronological order, starting with works from Barber’s pre-teen years and ending with the cycle Despite and Still, completed when he was 58 years old. The stylistic progression from an inordinately talented youngster to a mature master was fascinating to hear. His Nursery Songs, written between the ages of 10 and 13, demonstrate keen and serious mimicry of the late-Romantic textural and tonal thickness that was still in vogue at the time (though “I Do Not Like Thee, Dr. Fell” made one wonder if he wasn’t already mature enough to express self-irony). In his mid-teens, Barber seemed to have become braver, using sparser textures with more variety and color, as heard in his Three Songs (1925-1926). This set contained some lovely word-painting, as in the end of “Hey Nonny No!”, and even a clever nod to J.S. Bach in “An Earnest Visit to His Unkind Mistress” (a reference that all young composers seem obliged to indulge in at some point). In his twenties, the composer truly began to mature, breaking away from chromatic tonality and creating accompanimental textures that are coherent in their economy, yet flexible in their expressive impact. The effectiveness of such an approach is particularly evident in “The Secrets of the Old” and “In the Dark Pinewood,” a shimmering gem that even rivals songs of his masterful contemporary, Benjamin Britten, in its brilliant frugality. By the time he was in his late 50s, Barber had himself mastered a musical language that allowed the deeply personal and poignant sentiments in Despite and Still to emerge with stunning sonic imagery.
The Florestan performers brought their exceptional talents to all these dramatically varied songs. Pianists John McDonald and Alison d’Amato each supported the vocalists with a fine ear and a full-bodied, cushiony touch that never overpowered the voices; though there were many times when they seemed to hold back too much, missing opportunities for the piano to sing out and articulate the accompanimental word-painting that Barber built into many of the songs. However, the singers themselves were more than able to bring a wealth of expression to the performances. Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty covered the expressive gamut from humorous to grave with a voice that, despite its full, operatic quality (often a handicap for singers of art songs), demonstrated a remarkable variety of colors and moods. The richness of her instrument was particularly well-suited to darker-tinged songs, such as “The Queen’s Face on the Summery Coin” and “Love’s Caution”. Similarly, Aaron Engebreth’s powerful baritone voice never got in the way of his intensely engaging ability to tell a story through his singing. The copper-hued velvet of his sound was particularly effective in “Watchers” and in his moving interpretation of the varied emotions contained in the Despite and Still cycle.
The astute program order and the high-quality performances ensured that the “style fatigue” that can often result from a concert of music by a single composer never set in. Instead, the evening was compelling and very satisfying.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.