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Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Orchestral Works volume 1

Overture The School for Scandal, op 5
Symphony no 1, op 9
First Essay for Orchestra, op 12
Symphony no 2, op 19

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 8-9 December 2000
NAXOS 8.559024 [69:47]
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This is another highly welcome instalment in Naxos's complete survey of Samuel Barber's orchestral music.

The School for Scandal Overture (1933) was the work which put Barber on the musical map: a jolly romp of great thematic and colourful interest. The First Symphony (1937) is a tightly organised work, in one continuous movement but with four distinct sections, and lasts just over 21 minutes. The first two bustling and energetic sections are followed by an arresting andante tranquillo section. Here, an elegiac theme for solo oboe is gradually developed into a huge climax of passionate intensity. The concluding passacaglia is no less powerful and is brilliantly orchestrated.

The First Essay for Orchestra (1938) is also a powerful work and is another outstanding example of Barber's structural mastery. It opens in grave and sombre mood but eventually a lively discourse between woodwind and strings emerges leading to a splendid climax for full orchestra before a brief coda returns to the opening mood.

The Second Symphony (1944, revised 1947) has a curious history. Barber was conscripted into the USAAF in 1943 and his Air Force service was the direct inspiration of the symphony. However, for no obvious reason (for me, it's every bit as impressive and exciting as his first symphony) it failed to win a place in the repertoire; eventually Barber not only withdrew it in 1964 but three years later destroyed the original score and most copies (he did, however, retain the slow movement and published it in revised form as a separate work, Night Flight).

The sleeve note isn't very helpful about this extraordinary decision (it suggests vaguely 'perhaps dissatisfied with a lack of true symphonic integration' as the reason). Fortunately a copy was found after Barber's death in 1981 and we have to thank the conductor Andrew Schenk for rescuing the work from oblivion. Stylistically, the symphony continues to explore Barber's rich romantic vein, but the writing is more angular and the harmonic language more dissonant. The first movement displays enormous vigour, though eventually coming to a reflective conclusion. The second movement takes the form of a Nocturne beginning with a lengthy, pensive solo for cor anglais and leading to a climax for muted strings and horns which recalls the Adagio for Strings. The finale opens with a bustling theme for unison strings (which bears an uncanny likeness to the opening theme to the finale of the Elgar/Payne Third Symphony) and, like the first movement, is brimful of energy and of Barber's trademarks as an orchestrator (stabbing brass, timpani eruptions and so forth). Progress is interrupted to make way for a moving lament of great beauty entrusted to the strings before the work hurtles to a rousing conclusion.

Performance and recording are first class and this disc is a 'must' for anyone who enjoys late-romantic music with something new to say.

Adrian Smith

See also review by Colin Clarke

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