Sounds Heard: Florestan Recital Project—Early Songs of Samuel Barber

One of the more endearingly paradoxical indications of compositional success is that interest gets piqued in music that even the composer had largely forgotten about. Unpublished works, unfinished works, juvenilia—when even that becomes fair game, you know you’ve (posthumously, usually) made it. The latest recordings from Florestan Recital Project pay that tribute to Samuel Barber (1910-1981), collecting six songs, mostly written during Barber’s teenaged years.

The group first reclaimed the songs for posterity in 2009; their multi-concert survey of all of Barber’s songs included a host of then-unpublished works preserved in manuscript at the Library of Congress. (Since then, most of them have made it to print via a collection published by G. Schirmer.) The six recorded here make it clear just how much Barber was at home in vocal music from an early age, primed by temperament and family ties. (His aunt and uncle were Louise and Sidney Homer, Metropolitan Opera contralto and art-song composer, respectively; Louise Homer premiered many of Barber’s earliest efforts.) “Three Songs from Old England” show a precocious confidence: spare harmonic and melodic sequences for John Wilbye’s “Lady, When I Behold the Roses”; off-balance phrasing and contours in Thomas Wyatt’s “An Earnest Suit to His Unkind Mistress Not to Forsake Him”; cheerfully persistent diatonic suspensions in an anonymous “Hey Nonny No.”

“Fantasy in Purple” (with words by a then-up-and-coming Langston Hughes; Barber probably got the text through a friendly English professor) and “Watchers” (text by the prolific and forgotten Edgar Daniel Kramer) are both grim, high-drama scenes; if they lack the embellishment of unpredictability that marks so many of Barber’s songs, the skill on display is uncanny for a 15-year-old. Interestingly, the only dud dates from Barber’s twenties: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” ca.1935, which sets Robert Frost’s famous poem in almost diffidently prosaic fashion. (That Barber left it unpublished is at least a testament to his critical standards.) The performances, by Florestan artistic directors Aaron Engebreth (baritone) and Alison d’Amato (piano) are first-rate—stylish, lived-in interpretations with high technical polish. (The former vocal coach part of me could listen to Engebreth’s diction all day long.)

Still, even given Barber’s considerable and continuing popularity, this is obscure, old repertoire—awfully old for a publication called NewMusicBox, certainly. But the release is interesting in itself: the recording is free. It was funded by a grant—the first such—from Thomas Hampson’s Hampsong Foundation. Recording grants are nothing new, but a grant for a recording designed to be given away is a sign of the online streaming, post-record-store state of recordings going forward, I think. Florestan Recital Project’s first recordings—a two-CD set of the complete songs of Daniel Pinkham—were self-produced, self-released physical products, but since then, they have opted for the free download, first with Libby Larsen’s The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes (a Florestan commission), and now with these Barber songs.

At a symposium last weekend I heard a panel discussion on music publishing and recording during which Jim Selby, the CEO of Naxos, did his best to finesse the same paradox that his pop counterparts sidestepped at the “Rethink Music” conference I wandered around a couple of years ago: labels are increasingly interested primarily in artists who engage in a high degree of self-promotion, a criterion that would seem to preemptively make moot one of the basic advantages of signing with a label in the first place. In the meantime, the philanthropic apparatus of classical music is beginning to create funding channels for completely different models, high-quality DIY recordings sent into the market as a freely available resource. The give-it-away model has its own disadvantages and pitfalls, without question, but give Florestan Recital Project credit for using it in a savvy way. Glimpses of the teenaged Barber’s raw talent and potential would probably be an extreme niche product; for free, its road-less-traveled aspect feels special enough to be more than usually generous.

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