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Barber, Griffes, Previn, Kander & Weill: Desiderium

Barber, Griffes, Previn, Kander & Weill: Desiderium

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The star of tenor John Matthew Myers is rapidly in the ascendent. His debut album, Desiderium, coincides with his Metropolitan Opera debut in Brett Dean’s Hamlet. Desiderium – “an ardent desire or longing, a feeling of loss or grief for something lost” – beautifully showcases Myers’ mellifluous voice.

His thoughtful program of works by American and American émigré composers opens with Samuel Barber’s yearning Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – rarely heard sung by a tenor – and transitions to Charles Griffes’ similarly searching settings of 3 Poems of Fiona Macleod, and Andre Previn’s 4 Songs for Tenor and Piano. What follows is A Letter from Sullivan Ballou, set to the words of a poignant letter by an American Civil War officer, by John Kander (of Kander and Ebb musical theatre fame). Rounding out the recital are 4 Walt Whitman Songs by German-born composer Kurt Weill, including the classic O Captain! My Captain! John Matthew Myers says, “Call me a big-hearted Romantic. Each song on this album conveys yearning, separation, loneliness or distance but also a sense of intimacy and longing for connection.” It certainly does. Desiderium is an auspicious debut album, and one especially attuned to our times.


For his debut recital disc John Matthew Myers has chosen songs and groups of songs by five American composers, active during the 20th century. The common denominator is a feeling of loneliness, and it all stemmed from Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915, which is the only really well-known work in this album.

It goes without saying that the overriding mood is that of melancholy and gloom, but the texts and the musical expressions differ greatly, which vouches for a varied program. Barber’s Knoxville was composed in 1947 for a high voice and orchestra, and has almost exclusively been soprano territory. Since James Agee’s dream-like prose poem from 1938 is written in the persona of a 5-year-old male child, it’s logical to have it performed by a tenor. John Matthew Myers sings the many lyrical sections with soft beautiful tone, but he is also apt at expressing the desperation and sorrow in the work's crucial lines. It is a deeply felt reading.

Composed in 1918 The three Griffes songs, to poems by Fiona Macleod (William Field), were orchestrated in 1919. Like Barber’s Knoxville the orchestration has an attractive colouring that the piano cannot measure up to, but still it has its own attraction, and since it is the original it’s valid and gives the music a more intimate image, more chamber music like. I am happy to have both versions in so convincing readings.

I must say that André Previn’s 4 Songs for Tenor and Piano is a harder nut to crack. Composed in 2004 they are dressed in a rather knotty harmonic language. The mood is gloomy, also in the up-tempo last song, The Revelation. I believe that repeated listening might open them up, but at present I must content myself with admitting that the singing and playing are of the highest order. As far as I have been able to find out, this is a first recording, even though the liner notes don’t specifically say so.

The setting for John Kander’s A Letter from Sullivan Ballou, a major in the Civil War, is wonderful and gripping. John Kander is known, at least to Broadway musical enthusiasts, for his collaboration with Fred Ebb in Cabaret, Chicago, and other Broadway successes. Here, in a quite different vein, he catches all the shifts and nuances of the letter so sensitively. There are certainly echoes from his musical background, which in no way is a drawback. John Matthew Myers reading is appropriately sensitive.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 triggered Kurt Weill to set three of the Walt Whitman poems recorded here. He “structured the original three as a gradual decrescendo of militarism from the bullish opening to the wistful intensity of the final dirge”, as Julian Haylock says in his notes. Five years later he added Come Up from the Fields, Father, which here is placed third in the suite. Weill was a great admirer of Whitman, and said as early as 1926 that he was “the first truly original poetic talent to grow out of American soil.” The music is warlike and sturdy in the first song, reminding me of his style in the 1920s, the second song is a funeral march, and the whole suite – I wouldn’t call it a cycle – is deeply engaging.

John Matthew Myers can feel satisfied with his debut album, and he is excellently supported by Myra Huang’s accompaniment.

-- MusicWeb International (Göran Forsling)

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Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 13, 2022

  • UPC: 822252251227

  • Catalog Number: AV2512

  • Label: AVIE Records

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: Samuel Barber

  • Performer: John Matthew Myers