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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings (1936) [9:32] 
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
Violin Concerto, op.14 (1939) [24:21]
Elmar Oliveira (violin); Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Essay no.1, op.12 (1937) [9:15]
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Slatkin
Cello Concerto, op.22 (1945) [28:29]
Ralph Kirshbaum (cello); Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jukka Pekka Saraste,
Agnus Dei (1967) [7:47] 
Winchester Cathedral Choir/David Hill
rec. details not given
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 2282752 [79:31] 
Experience Classicsonline

How nice it would be occasionally to come across a disc of Barber that did not include the Adagio for Strings!  Nevertheless, it’s hard to carp at this issue too much as it gives excellent value. It also has the added bonus of allowing us to compare two marvellous versions of the aforementioned Adagio.  The piece started life in 1936 as the slow movement of Barber’s String Quartet, but was first performed in the well-known string orchestra version (track 1) by Toscanini in 1938.  The arrangement for eight-part unaccompanied choir (track 9) dates from much later – 1967 – but has come almost to rival the string version in popularity. 

The performances of these first and last tracks are very fine ones.  Previn shapes the Adagio masterfully, and the LSO strings are on excellent form. The climax is intense and yet tightly controlled.  My only reservation was with the tone of the strings at the very end, where the violins seem too hard and bright, undermining the sense of dignity and resignation.  No details of recording dates and venues are given, which is annoying; but there is a copyright date of 1977, indicating the general era of the recording, and it has worn very well. 

The Agnus Dei draws some splendid singing from Westminster Cathedral Choir, under that superb choral trainer David Hill.  This is an ‘all male’ version, and it has to be said that the boys cope remarkably well with the very long expressive lines – better than the men of the choir in fact!  But, as so often with English cathedral choirs, the hooting of the male altos will rule this version way out for many listeners.  If that worries you - and it does me - then it would be advisable to go for a mixed choir version - for example the very intense Accentus Chamber Choir and Laurence Equilbey (Naive 4965). 

Which brings me to the real meat of this disc: three substantial Barber masterpieces, the Violin Concerto, the First Essay and the Cello Concerto.  The conductor in the first two of these is Leonard Slatkin, and whatever one may think of his work in some areas of repertoire, he is hard to fault in American music.  His soloist in the violin work is the wonderful Elmar Oliveira, who gives a glorious interpretation of a glorious piece.  Sometimes, it is very hard to put your finger on what is so special about a performance; this one feels right from the very outset. I came to the conclusion that at least some of the credit for this goes to the engineers for securing such an ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. This means that all the wonderful details in the scoring come through with complete clarity – the bass notes in the piano at the very start, or the gentle touches of pizzicato which pervade the Allegro for example.  Oliveira is constantly alert, unfailingly musical, and technically completely in command, apart from one brief patch of slightly sour intonation around 2:00 (track 2) and thereafter.  A captivating performance, seemingly effortless, but imbued with the very spirit of this magical score. 

Slatkin’s reading of Essay No.1 is similarly impressive.  This is a powerful work, much more weighty than its nine minutes’ duration might suggest.  The playing of the St. Louis Symphony achieves a consistently beautiful sound without sacrificing the pain which lurks behind every bar of this great music.  And what a wonderfully enigmatic ending! 

The Cello Concerto is a much less obviously attractive work than its companion for the violin; but it is a fine and entertaining piece, showing Barber in his rather more gritty mood.  Indeed its first movement seems almost to take up where the frenetic finale of the Violin Concerto leaves off.  Ralph Kirshbaum is a persuasive and committed soloist, even if his heavy breathing is a bit distracting in the first movement’s cadenza, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra support adequately, though without the distinction of the more starry orchestras on the disc.

At nearly eighty minutes, this disc is exceptional value, and would be worth the money for the Violin Concerto and the Essay alone.  Question: is Samuel Barber the most inexplicably underrated composer of the 20th century? Seems like it to me!

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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