CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: Picture postcards from everywhere

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The Independent Culture
IBERT: Escales; Flute Concerto; Paris; Louisville-concert; Bacchanale - Hopkins, Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Charles Dutoit (Decca 440 332-2)

PRESENTING the mercurial Jacques Ibert - would-be actor, showman, scene-painter, scene-stealer. No need to look at the postmarks on his picture postcards. His keen ear for local colour is up there with Ravel and Debussy, with the added flamboyance of a Chabrier. Orchestrally speaking, a very snappy dresser.

And Dutoit is a top-of-the-range courier. The splendours of Valencia (in Escales) make a stunning impression in this sumptuous recording. But give me the eerie quirkiness of his Paris suite; or the sultry, ever so slightly 'blue' slow movement of his Flute Concerto; or the BBC commission Bacchanale, which kicks in like a Gallic sabre dance; or, best of all, his Louisville-concert, which might easily have been subtitled 'A Parisian in America' - right down to the little twist of Gershwin in the main theme. Edward Seckerson

NO DARK revelations or ecstatic heaven-storming here; but nor is Ibert a Ravel - a connoisseur of sounds, savouring his creations at arm's length. The gorgeous Mediterranean tapestry of Escales may be tinged with Ravel, but Ibert's delight in the moods and colours he creates is wonderfully direct; and, fastidious as he is, Dutoit lets us feel the warmth, the affection too - after all, this is supposed to have been the souvenir of a happy honeymoon. Timothy Hopkins is a very persuasive soloist in the Flute Concerto, particularly in the slow movement, where his gorgeous tone, subtly controlled vibrato and elegant phrasing are just what the music needs. Whether the pastiche Hommage a Mozart or the featherweight, cinematic Paris (many miles fron Delius's) will prove quite as repeatable, I doubt, but the wildly energetic Bacchanale might be just the thing to get the blood circulating on a cold morning. Stephen Johnson

BARBER: Complete Songs - Cheryl Studer, Thomas Hampson, John Browning, Emerson Quartet (DG 435 867-2)

SAMUEL Barber, composer of songs, born again. The richness of this collection won't surprise anyone who has been weaned on Knoxville: Summer of 1915, or the quirkily mystic Hermit Songs, or his masterly setting of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, whose lowering beauty is so movingly invoked here by Thomas Hampson and the Emerson Quartet.

Barber seemed to grow with the word. His first 10 songs - all unpublished - find him reaching out in every direction: the sentimental Celtic ballad and classic art-song rub shoulders. Like any great songwriter, Barber could heighten one's awareness of a poem without upstaging it. His melody and harmony shadow the texts. There's no knowing where the one will take the other.

Sometimes it's as if the melodic line is seeking out a subtext. His skills are applied from so many interesting angles, but always they look inward. His three James Joyce settings (Op 10) are as penetrating, as focused, as anything in Schubert or Schumann. By contrast, Joyce's 'Nuvoletta' is all elusive fancy - the words, the music, Studer's singing, like spun lace.

Barber had a nose for the right texts. 'Solitary Hotel' is tongue-in-cheek cabaret, 'Sure on This Shining Night' is Knoxville revisited, 'O Boundless, Boundless Evening' is a masterpiece of expansion, the power of harmony infinitely to extend the reach of melody. Songs, singers, John Browning's piano playing - all are inspiring. A major release. ES

I'VE had no difficulty respecting Barber in the past - for his beautiful craftmanship, delicacy of feeling, and most of all for sticking to what he knew he did best even when there didn't seem to be much public taste for it (the 1960s and 1970s were hard times for lyrical romantics). But hearing these two discs, I've found respect giving way to admiration, even love. Barber's sensitivity to words, his ability to find treasure in the tiniest nuance, while shaping the larger vocal line with the elegance of a Schumann or a Faure, makes him a natural songwriter.

The emotion seems at once more personal and more focused here than in anything else by Barber. Song form doesn't tolerate the expansive looseness (did someone say mushiness?) you can find in his larger works, and it seems to have done him good to write in it. He must have realised that - why else so many songs, and not a dud among them? The performances are magnificent. It's Hampson who provides most of the truly heart-stopping moments for me, but Studer's pained intensity in a song like 'The Crucifixion' (from Hermit Songs) is a different kind of plus - her expressive charge is always high. Browning is an exceptionally sympathetic accompanist - to both performers and composer; and the recordings are intimate without bringing singers too close for comfort. An exceptional release. SJ

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