Andre Previn, "Honey and Rue," Samuel Barber, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," and George Gershwin, "I Loves You, Porgy" and "Summertime," performed by Kathleen Battle and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, Previn conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 437 787-2)
The major interest here is Previn's "Honey and Rue," a song cycle specifically written for Battle and on which the composer collaborated with the poet and novelist Toni Morrison.
This is a wonderful cycle with a splendid text. Morrison's poems have an aura made up equally of earthiness and ethereal beauty. hard to think of a composer better suited than Previn for such a text. He is equally comfortable with European art-song tradition, jazz composition and performance, popular music and the landscape of African-American spirituals. His songs move effortlessly among these various worlds, and Battle sings them with vocal beauty, spontaneity, swing and poetry.
Barber's famous song cycle, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," was first performed by (and much identified with) Eleanor Steber, a soprano with a much bigger and darker voice than Battle's. But as Dawn Upshaw demonstrated a few years back, this lovely music can just as easily belong to a singer with a lighter, brighter voice. The Battle-Previn version and the Upshaw-Zinman version Nonesuch) each uses the Orchestra of St. Luke's -- and that (along with the light voices of the singers) is the only similarity.
Battle-Previn is more "operatic" and sophisticated than the superb Upshaw-Zinman, which, in turn, may be closer to the work's roots in the James Agee text. But this new interpretation is no less fascinating and makes an important contribution to the Barber discography.
It's almost needless to add that Previn conducts his own and Barber's music idiomatically and brilliantly. The two Gershwin numbers from "Porgy" are affectingly sung and make a splendid bonus to a treasurable disc.