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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for strings, Op. 11* [7’45"]
Symphony No 1, Op. 9** [21’39"]
Piano Concerto, Op. 38*** [29’ 09"]
Souvenirs, Op. 28 for piano four-hands **** [18’24"]
Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a* [12’07"]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14***** [23’37"]
Capricorn Concerto, Op. 21 for flute, oboe, trumpet and strings****** [14’34"]
Concerto for cello and Orchestra, Op. 22******* [26’11"]
*Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
** St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
***John Browning (piano); St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
**** John Browning and Leonard Slatkin (piano)
***** Kyoko Takezawa (violin); St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
******Jacob Berg (flute); Peter Bowman (oboe); Susan Slaughter (trumpet); St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
*******Steven Isserlis (cello); St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Recorded: * 1957. Venue not specified
** and *** at Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis 6-7 October 1990
**** at Manhattan Center, New York City, 15 October 1990
***** 24 April 1994; ****** 7 May 1995; ******* 2 December 1994 all at Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
BMG ARTISTES RÉPERTOIRES 74321 987042 [2 CDs 76’59"; 76’59"]


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The majority of the items on this well filled "twofer" made up the contents of two excellent RCA CDs, issued in the 1990s. The Violin and Cello Concertos together with the Capricorn Concerto were all included on 09026 68283 2. Slatkin’s accounts of the Symphony and of the Piano Concerto accompanied his partnership with John Browning in Souvenirs on 60732-2-RC, which I think may be an American pressing. To these pieces BMG have added two items in which Charles Munch leads the Boston Symphony.

Slatkin’s tenure of the podium of the BBC Symphony Orchestra ends this September and it seems that the partnership has not really worked out for some reason. That’s a great pity as he’s a conductor whose work I admire. These recordings, made with the orchestra that he led from 1979 to 1996, show what excellent results he can achieve.

The recordings are described as "New Masters" but to be honest I can’t detect any significant difference between these new pressings and the (very good) engineering on the original releases.

John Browning was the pianist for whom Barber wrote his Piano Concerto. This is his second recording of the work. His first, with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra was made for CBS/Sony in 1964, I believe. That remains a benchmark reading but anyone who already has that should not ignore Browning’s remake for in the intervening twenty-odd years his view of the work seems to have mellowed. This is reflected in the timings. Here the performance lasts for 29 minutes whereas in partnership with Szell the piece flashes by in an astonishing 23’01". Most of the difference occurs in the first movement which is significantly more expansive in the later account. The sound on this BMG recording is richer and fuller than on the CBS version and that complements the more expansive style of the later reading. There’s greater urgency in the Browning/Szell traversal of the first movement. In the slow movement the interpretative differences are less marked but the greater depth and ambience of the BMG sound contributes to a more dream-like quality in the music making. The high-octane finale with which the work concludes is full of tension and energy in the later recording. However, with Szell Browning displays even more drive. Theirs is a tumultuous, breathtaking account. It’s fascinating to compare and contrast the two readings. I don’t prefer one to the other; in fact I wouldn’t be without either.

The other two concertos are much earlier works. The celebrated Violin Concerto (1939-40) is in the sure hands of the Japanese violinist, Kyoto Takezawa. She studied at the Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay. She plays with a fine, lyrical singing tone but there’s strength there too. She project’s Barber’s solo line very effectively and poetically. Slatkin is an attentive and positive accompanist. At the start of the slow movement the long oboe solo is played gloriously (is the player Peter Bowman, I wonder?). When the soloist finally takes the spotlight she plays ardently. I must confess that I always find the helter-skelter finale a bit of an anti-climax but it whirls along here and brings to an exciting conclusion a fine performance of the concerto. Perhaps this performance isn’t quite as sinewy and razor-sharp as the benchmark recording by Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein but it’s a very considerable achievement and very recommendable.

In the Cello Concerto of 1945 Steven Isserlis offers a warm and lyrical reading. Perhaps he doesn’t project the solo line as powerfully as some but his approach brings its own rewards. At the heart of his interpretation is the soulful, withdrawn Andante sostenuto – or at least that’s how the movement sounds in Isserlis’s persuasive hands. It’s a simply gorgeous movement and Isserlis, in eloquent partnership with Slatkin, does it full justice. In the passionate finale there is plenty of vigour and drive but even here the lyrical passages receive their full due. With Isserlis a committed and eloquent soloist this is a very satisfying rendition of the concerto.

Barber’s Capricorn Concerto (1944) is not too well known. I don’t know of another work by Barber that is so neo-classical in style. It’s scored for the same forces as Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto and is an inventive, witty work. I believe the soloists here were all principals with the St. Louis orchestra at the time (Susan Slaughter and Jacob Berg certainly were). They are all excellent and relish to the full the opportunities for both display and discourse that the work presents. The notes that accompanied the original release quote composer Lou Harrison’s marvellous description of the work’s "bubbling opalescence." Even more usefully, those notes told the listener that a manuscript of the score indicated that Barber regarded the solo oboe as representing his longtime companion, Gian-Carlo Menotti, the trumpet stood for the poet, Robert Horan and the flute was Barber himself while the orchestra represented Capricorn itself, the house that Barber and Menotti shared for many years. Purchasers of this reissue aren’t given this very interesting information. In fact they aren’t given any information whatsoever about the music as yet again BMG spoil a useful release by a lack of any notes apart from three superficial paragraphs in French. A missed opportunity.

Returning to the music, the set also includes an irresistible performance by John Browning and Leonard Slatkin of Souvenirs for piano, four-hands. This is sheer entertainment, a jeu d’esprit if ever there was one. Both pianists play with style, panache and relish, treating listeners to the spectacle of two fine musicians having great fun.

The First Symphony is an altogether tougher proposition. Its very powerful first movement is ardently projected by the St. Louis players who also shine in the scampering scherzo. Like the Violin Concerto the slow movement opens with a long, yearning oboe solo (Peter Bowman again?). This is a beautiful movement that Slatkin shapes very convincingly. He is just as successful in the concluding passacaglia, which is purposeful and strong.

Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony complete the set with two shorter works. The famous Adagio for Strings benefits from the lustrous richness of the Boston strings. Perhaps the performance lacks the last degree of inwardness, especially at the start. However, I like Munch’s flowing tempo and he builds the piece passionately. The opening of Medea is pregnant with tension and as the piece unfolds the BSO turn in a performance of superb atmosphere and virtuosity. These recordings date from 1957 but are not bad for their age.

This set contains the essential Samuel Barber, at least as regards his orchestral output. There are other low price versions of most of these works but for convenience this set is very hard to beat. Even harder to beat is the quality of the performances. Without exception these are very high and the sound is excellent. As ever, the lack of documentation with this series is a serious drawback but not such as to deny this set the warmest possible recommendation.

John Quinn



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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