Baritone Gerald Finley's generous selection of Barber's songs includes two of his most familiar cycles, 11 individual songs, and Dover Beach, for baritone and string quartet. The songs all come from Barber's early period and range from "There is nae Lark," written when he was 17, to the Hermit Songs of 1953. Finley doesn't have a huge voice, but he can deliver plenty of power when required, and he has an appealing warmth and ease. His delivery is refreshingly free and unmannered, and it is ideally suited to the directness of Barber's songs. He shows wonderful sensitivity to the texts and makes even the most overdone songs, such as "The Daisies," sound convincing and newly imagined. The Hermit Songs are sung almost exclusively by women, perhaps because of the tradition that Barber established when he gave the premiere performance accompanying Leontyne Price, whose recording remains a gold standard. The texts, mostly written by Medieval Irish monks, largely reflect a male perspective, and Finley's fine performance ought to give courage to more men to take up the cycle. He brings more than the usual malice (and more than a little envy) to "Promiscuity." The more rambunctious songs, such as "Sea Snatch," and "The Heavenly Banquet," which he sings with an appropriate coarseness, benefit especially from his overtly masculine take. But even in the specifically feminine "St. Ita's Vision," Finley's tender version is fully persuasive. He and pianist Julius Drake take "Monk and his Cat" just a hair more slowly than it's usually done, and their rhythmic flexibility gives it a languid feline grace that makes it a standout on the album. Finley's darkly dramatic reading of Dover Beach, with the Aronowitz Ensemble, makes this piece, which can be difficult to pull off, genuinely moving. Drake's sensitive accompaniments have an especially fine sense of timing, and he is fully sensitive to the give and take the songs require. Finley's assured and lyrical performances and the insight he brings to the variety of selections make this an excellent introduction to Barber's songs and should be of interest to anyone who loves twentieth century vocal literature.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
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