Upon its debut in the United States, this Deutsche Grammophon collection of the songs of American composer Samuel Barber was titled Secrets of the Old: The Complete Songs of Samuel Barber. This selection of 47 songs coordinated, annotated, and accompanied by pianist John Browning is not "complete," as certain songs written by Barber have never been, and likely never will be, published or performed.
But all of the then "new" Barber songs included in Secrets of the Old are either at or barely below the composer's usual high standard of work; it is hard to imagine what Barber saw in their makeup that led him to exclude them from his canon, although a couple of the numbers are songs to which Barber himself had no access in his lifetime.
Of the singers, Thomas Hampson is in fine form throughout, particularly in the Op. 27 songs, Bessie Bobtail, and even in the early songs such as Night Wanderers. Comparatively Cheryl Studer is the weak link in this project. Overall, her loud, heavy, and somewhat wayward voice is at least tolerable and sometimes her delivery of line and lyric is good; she treats Barber's songs with respect, if not reverence. But one sorely wishes DG had found someone else to sing Sure on This Shining Night; you could go down to the local university music school and find half a dozen sopranos who could do a better job than Studer does here. Pianist and Barber's one-time friend John Browning melds the whole thing together with his expertly formulated accompaniments, capturing both the letter and spirit of Samuel Barber's music. Without Browning, interest flags -- the Hampson and Emerson String Quartet collaboration on Dover Beach, Op. 3, is not a highlight of this collection. But if you are looking for a set of Barber's songs that is as comprehensive as possible, Secrets of the Old: The Complete Songs of Samuel Barber is the way to go.