The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (148): Samuel Barber sings

An irresistibly historic recording.

 

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  • It should be noted that the beautiful sounding quartet in this recording is the legendary Curtis Quartet, who were students at Curtis, as was Barber. They were to give the first performance of his String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11, which includes the iconic Adagio for Strings, but it was not completed before the quartet’s concert tour. After several rewrites of the Finale, the final form of the quartet was premiered by the Budapest Quartet on May 28, 1943, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

  • What is interesting here is the “breath” that he gives to the text, to the meaning: this is more
    than singing. And then, the way the voice touches the
    line of the strings…

  • Contributor E makes another unusually perceptive comment, adding to the statements of Arnold and Barber, who trained as a singer after advice from his aunt, contralto Louise Homer/ A valuable recording of a memorable poem set to music that adds to its purport, and sung by the composer. A good choice, Mr. Lebrecht, with credit to FiDi for a good effort.

    Few others occur … Reynaldo Hahn accompanying himself on piano and adding a Mozart air. Brahms might not himself be welcome as singer; he left that to Sir Georg Henschel and others he liked to accompany, once surprising a Viennese audience trundling on stage behind the singer, carrying his scores. I’d like to have heard that. Or Schubert trying oit a grand philosophical Lied like “Die Grenzen der Menschheit” of Goethe, and going for the low E that I’ve cracked. I’ll settle for the higher E.

    There’s a good story about Brahms and henschel onholiddayat Ruegen island. After a day’s singing and playing a their hotel’s piano, Brahms’s snoring drove Henschel from their room to sleep in the alon, where Brahms found him next day. “Why didn’t you throw a boot at me?” he asked. Henschel’s comment: “Imagine throwing a boot at Brahms!”

  • One thing that is interesting to me (apart from Barber’s very pleasant singing voice) about this famous recording is the way Barber enunciates the English language in what to our ears seems a slightly affected manner, but is entirely within the “singing in English” tradition that one also hears in recordings by such fine voices of the 1930s as Richard Crooks, Lawrence Tibbett, James Melton, John Charles Thomas, Norman Cordon, and so on. Those not-quite-British rolled “r’s” and the softening of hard consonants make you wonder “just what country’s accent IS that?” Some popular singers sang that way too. And you hear that same manner of speaking English in many old radio show air-checks featuring announcers and commercial voice-overs of that pre-WW2 era. You’d also hear it in the very old “educational films” (“How a Bill Becomes Law” or “How Honey [or Steel or Igneous Rock] is Made” and that sort of thing) we used to have to sit through in school. We kids never knew what made us laugh more, the pompous and priggish narrators or the “inspiring” music. It (the way of enunciating that is) was gone or mostly gone by the 1950s, the television era. It creates a sense of distance when we hear it now.

    And I do like the piece and wish I’d had the chance to play it. I was asked to take part in a vocal recital with a good singer who programmed one of his favorites, Butterworth’s beautiful cycle “Love As The Wind Blows” for voice and string quartet and said to him afterwards “Next year, Dover Beach?” He replied “I loath Dover Beach.” Oh well.

  • Good mention of Crooks, Tibbett, Melton, Cordon, one of the two thomases, David, all clear, memorable singers.

    I always liked Crooks, not just oratorio and Irish ballads, but tLohengrin, Pearl Fisher’s arias, and long service with LucreziaBori to the Met when his singing career ended.

    I saw James Melton in recital in Savannah in 1951-1952 when I was at Camp Stewart. When I mentioned this on Amazon’s classical music forum there came anice note from Melton’s daughter for not remembering her father. How could I not, with his recital and love duet from “Butterfly” with Licia Albanese? Spelt right, Larry Lash? And were you able to confirm Gosta Winbergh’s “Tristan” at Chicago Lyric the week before his death in Vienna after Florestan?

    Even Nelson Eddy sang Wagner in those days before joining the Mounties and Jeannette MacDonald in “Always”. Happier, more innocent times, or misty youth in retrospect?

  • I first heard “Adagio for Strings” under circumstances that cannot be repeated. It struck me like a Corelli adagio: diatonic, scalar, tonal, inevitable, earnest and gravely solemn, the ending falling into pace inevitably like tumblers in a lock. The quartet’s re-written finale that gave Barber trouble is a fugue.

    Grumblers carp that “Adagio for Srings” is cliche, like Chopin’s, Handel’s, or the marionette’s dead march, but what would they have? That is the fault of the living, not the dead, and of over-doers like Schippers and Bernstein.

    The nearest alternative, Guillaume Lekeu’s “Adagio pour cordes” is three times as long, extremely beautiful and written in memory of Franck. Parry’s “Elegy for Brahms” is not in the same class. One of the six slow movements of Shostakovich’s 15th quartet might serve, but which? They are obviously patterned on Haydn’s “Seven Last Words”.

    Toscanini deserves credit for seeing the possibility and arranging Barber’s quartet adagio himself, then taking it on tour to South Amerian with the NBCSO. It was his 78 that I first heard.

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