Samuel Barberís music is well enough known these days for there
to be no need of introduction. His career spanned 45 years and
his style, once formed, never varied. He achieved success early,
through the championship of Toscanini, and his works have been
recorded with regularity since the 1930s. In 1933 Barber himself,
in his persona as a baritone, recorded his Dover Beach
with the Curtis Quartet.
present disc offers a lovely collection of pieces, some well
known, some not so well known. The School for Scandal Overture,
not written for a production of the play, but created to reflect
the hustle and bustle of Sheridanís play, is fabulously racy and great fun. Incidentally, in an article
in the Gay Greats section of Fyne Times it is suggested that
the Overture is really an Ode to the Curtis Institute
which Barber was about to leave!
for strings needs no introduction, itís probably Barberís most famous piece; derived
from his only String Quartet - which we should hear more
often. It is given a fine performance here. The 1st
Essay for Orchestra (there are three in total) is a cogently
argued movement in three sections Ė slow, fast, slow. It is
supposed to reflect the kind of argument one finds in a written
essay. It is a much bigger work than its timescale would lead
you to believe with a thrusting scherzo for the middle section,
and a most satisfying and titanic climax. It was premiŤred at the same concert as the Adagio,
Barber was commissioned to write the Violin Concerto
he took the fee and went to Switzerland to compose. Of the three movements
the first is medium paced, the second slow and the third a blazing
finale. Itís a fine work which allows much scope for the soloist
to display his ability to play long lyrical lines and show off
year after Appalachian Spring, Martha Graham commissioned
a ballet from Barber who produced the score Medea - which
Graham named Cave of the Heart. Like Copland, Barber
produced an orchestral suite from the complete score, then went
on to extract the piece presented here - Medeaís Meditation
and Dance of Vengeance, op.23a (not Medeaís Dance of
Vengeance, op.23a as the booklet incorrectly has it).
was a singer himself. His Aunt was Louise Homer, well known
mezzo at the Met, and his Uncle was a songwriter, so the human
voice was part and parcel of his make-up. He wrote a lot of
songs and the excerpt from James Ageeís autobiography, describing
his childhood, struck such a chord with the composer that he
produced one of his best, and most haunting, works.
thereís the details of the compositions. What of the performances?
The LSO recordings are good and clear, but the high violins
sound a little glassy which ever so slightly spoils the enjoyment
of the music. Barbara Hendricks is a fine soloist in Knoxville,
giving time to the words and generally evoking a world of innocence
and wonder for a child. In the Adagio, Tilson
Thomas seems slightly detached from the music so it doesnít
make its full emotional impact but it gets close.
The rest of the programme comes from two different Slatkin CDs. The
Violin Concerto originally appeared coupled with Howard
Hansonís Second Symphony, The Romantic, and itís a fine
performance. Oliveira really has the measure of this work. Heís
convincingly in charge of proceedings giving a heart-felt performance
full of romantic warmth, deep feeling and understanding. Slatkin
accompanies with sympathy and subtlety.
I suspect that I was spoiled because I discovered the Essay
and Overture from an old (mono) Howard Hanson LP and
those performances, which I still love, were so powerful, and
were recorded with such immediacy, that Iíve seldom heard anyone
get anywhere close to them. Slatkin is good but the middle section
of the Essay lacks real punch and the climax is fluffed,
failing to make the full emotional impact it should. The Overture
lacks the lightness of touch which Hanson brought to it, so
the full humour of the piece is missing. However, Slatkin is
excellent in the Medea excerpt giving a full-blooded
account of the work.
Despite my slight reservations, this is a good and interesting anthology
of some of Barberís best known works and it would be welcome
in most collections.
by Rob Barnett