Knoxville Summer CD, Import
Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is a setting of a lovely chunk of prose text by James Agee describing an evening from his childhood. An accomplished singer himself, Barber's vocal writing is expert, and this work must rank as one of the finest examples of the art of word-setting in any language. Barber perfectly captures the conversational quality of the text, while at the same time clothing the words in an atmosphere of gentle nostalgia. It's a masterpiece that Dawn Upshaw sings with keen insight and lovely tone. The remainder of the program is creatively chosen as well, making this one of the finest vocal recitals available by an American singer. --David Hurwitz
Samuel Barber, from the Philadelphia area, was not native of the south but James Agee's prose poem about childhood, "Knoxville: Summer of `1915" clearly resonated with him. Rapidly drafted in 1947 and then revised over several years, the song has become something of a classic, its sultry poetry married to Barber's use of a nearly blues-like modal main theme. I compared the performance by Upshaw, born in Nashville, with the older 1960s performance by another singer from the south, Leontyne Price, and think Upshaw's is comprehensively better. Upshaw's comfort in the high part of her range, clarity of diction and musicality trumps Price's difficulties with fast passages, which mar the middle sections of her "Knoxville". Upshaw and Zinman provide a somewhat objective, more detached reading than the emotional, moody approach Price and her conductor Thomas Schippers take. While I like this moodiness, Upshaw's performance is just light years ahead technically and it is musical. You never want to proclaim a performance of a multifaceted work like "Knoxville" as definitive, but Upshaw comes close.
This fairly short disc - it clocks in at around 45 minutes - also contains a 1982 work by John Harbison, the Mirabai Songs. I found the instrumental effects lovely but the songs are unfortunately entirely lacking in melodic interest, a common failing in contemporary art music. An extended aria from Igor Starainsky's 1951 opera "The Rake's Progress" may actually mark Upshaw single best performance on this disc. This opera has never been a favorite of mine but Upshaw makes a good case for it and her performance of this difficult number is awe-inspiring. The assurance with which she hits high notes and takes on rapid runs is amazing, and it is combined with her high sense of musicianship for a really nice result. Also programmed is a humorous opera aria by Barber's long-term partner Gian Carlo Menotti from the late 1930s. I found it unremarkable in musical terms, albeit well-performed and mildly amusing.
A terrific disc and a must-own for fans of American art composers.