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Barber: Complete Songs

Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), William Thomas (bass) et al; Dylan Perez (piano) (Resonus)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

The Complete Songs
Mary Bevan (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone), Nicky Spence (tenor), William Thomas (bass) et al; Dylan Perez (piano)
Resonus RES10301   158:40 mins (2 discs)


Deutsche Grammophon’s classic survey of Barber’s songs has ruled the catalogue for three decades, but its dominance may be over. This new Resonus collection not only includes 19 songs never recorded before, but uses ten different singers to DG’s two (Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson), adding valuable variety to the overall listening experience.

And what an experience it is: even from the earliest opus numbers Barber’s songs ripple with acuity and emotional intelligence, with no hint of a young composer struggling to find his feet. Bass William Thomas’s plangent take on Op. 2’s ‘With rue my heart is laden’ and tenor Nicky Spence’s risingly intense ‘Rain has fallen’ from Op. 10 are two striking examples of how tellingly Barber aligned words and music from the outset.

Quite how punctiliously Barber stitched sound, rhythm and syntax together is underlined in Nuvoletta, where he sets a snapshot story from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A lilting waltz, droll quotations from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, pointillistic depictions of tears dropping at twilight – Barber glides easily from one dream image to another, dextrously flipping idioms and playfully inflecting the Joycean neologisms ‘sfumastelliacinous’ and ‘engauzements’. Soraya Mafi is the intelligent soloist.

Hermit Songs is the major cycle here, and again this recording really hits the mark. In the opening ‘At St Patrick’s Purgatory’, soprano Mary Bevan conveys a sense of spiritual crisis without resorting to squally melodrama. ‘Church Bell at Night’ has a limpid clarity with just a touch of sensuality, while ‘The Heavenly Banquet’ is puckish but shorn of bluster. Bevan’s ‘The Desire for Hermitage’ closes the cycle in ideally ruminative fashion.

Soprano Samantha Clarke’s alluring ‘Sure on this shining night’ and baritone Julien Van Mellaerts’s sentient Dover Beach(supported by the Navarra String Quartet), are other highlights. But almost any song on this absorbing issue can be listened to with joy.

Among the premiere recordings there are riches too, in the affectionately antiquarian The Words from Old England and the solemn Fantasy in Purple, to a poem by Langston Hughes. Both are sonorously delivered by the dark-toned bass William Thomas. Barber sets French beautifully too, in the alluring La Nuit and Au clair de la lune. Both songs recall Poulenc, and soprano Soraya Mafi is again a sensitive soloist.

Even the evergreen Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is presented in unfamiliar guise, using a version Barber himself made for piano accompaniment. Losing the orchestra in Knoxville is theoretically a setback, but is more than compensated by the immediacy of Nicky Spence’s evocative interpretation.

Dylan Perez’s pianism is consistently insightful without obtruding – a tall order for any accompanist – and his curating of the entire project is masterly. The sound quality is excellent, engineer Adam Binks striking an ideal balance between voice and piano. These two discs undoubtedly set a new benchmark in Barber’s vocal music, and every art song lover should have them.

Terry Blain

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