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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto, op.14 (1940) [23:35]
Cello Concerto, op.22 (1945) [26:09]
Piano Concerto, op.38 (1962) [29:00]
Kyoko Takezawa (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello), John Browning (piano), Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Recorded April 24th and December 2nd 1994 (violin and cello concertos), and October 6th-7th 1990 (piano concerto), Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
BMG-RCA CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876-65832-2 [79:19]


This disc is a feast of wonderful music, superbly performed and recorded. Barber’s concertos are among the finest of that genre in the 20th century, though only the Violin Concerto has achieved its due popularity. On reflection, it is quite easy to understand why; its effortless lyricism and beauty of line make it well-nigh irresistible. The other two are more gritty, the composer using a more challenging and contemporary musical language.

But they are well worth the effort, and performances such as these make the process a rare pleasure. Isserlis characterises the solo part of the Cello Concerto with the kind of effortless virtuosity that has long been his hallmark, yet misses nothing of the musical variety and interest packed into this busy, eventful piece. His tone in the high register during the first movement’s fine cadenza is something very special, and he invests the rhythmical finale and its tortuous passage-work with great high spirits.

The protagonist of the Piano Concerto, John Browning, is no less persuasive; no surprise, as the piece was written for him and he gave it its première in New York back in 1962. This is a fascinating work, with overtones of Rachmaninov in its expansive melodic writing for the piano, yet with an enjoyably hard-edged modernity to the harmonies and rhythms. The finale shows Barber’s sly sense of humour to great effect, with whimsical solos in the woodwind, and prominent use of the trombone at one point.

The Violin Concerto – which opens the disc – is superbly handled by Kyoko Takezawa. She is completely equal to its technical challenges, but her main achievement is to avoid wallowing, and to allow the music to speak with a freshness that is quite delightful. She is helped, as are the other two soloists, by a recording which seems to have achieved the perfect balance between soloist and orchestra.

Leonard Slatkin, despite the frustrations of his time at the BBC, is hard to surpass in this kind of music. The Saint Louis orchestra play wonderfully well for him, and all the details of scoring come through with clarity and character. Some may not like the sound of the solo oboe, which is quintessentially American, plangent, sweet, but with very little vibrato; that is down to personal taste, but you cannot fault the musicianship and stylishness of the playing. Seventy-nine minutes’ worth of pure musical pleasure – at this price, what more could you want?

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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