Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Complete Orchestral Works
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 [21:06]
First Essay for Orchestra Op. 12 [8:11]
Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5 [8:37]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 19 [30:59]
Cello Concerto, Op. 22 [29:27]
Wendy Warner (cello)
Medea - Orchestral Suite, Op. 23 [28:44]
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 [7:47]
Violin Concerto, Op. 14 [23:02]
James Buswell (violin)
Souvenirs, Op. 28 [20:43]
Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 1 [10:45]
Music for a Scene from Shelley, Op. 7 [9:49]
Piano Concerto Op. 38 [27:05]
Stephen Prutsman (piano)
Die Natali, Op. 37 [17:00]
Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a [12:41]
Commando March [3:07]
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24 [16:51]
Toccata Festiva, Op. 36 [14:24]
Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17 [11:12]
Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47 [14:28]
Capricorn Concerto [14:08]
A Hand of Bridge, Op. 35 [9:44]
Mutations from Bach 
Vanessa – Intermezzo [4:26]
Canzonetta for oboe and strings [8:46]
Fadograph of a Yestern Scene [9:40]
Wendy Warner (cello), James Buswell (violin), Stephen Prutsman (piano),
Karina Gauvin (soprano), Thomas Trotter (organ), Stéphane Rancourt
(oboe), John Gracie (trumpet), Karen Jones (flute), (A Hand of
Bridge: Lesley Craigie (soprano); Simon Wall (tenor); Roderick
Williams (baritone); Louise Winter (mezzo))
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 1999-2004, DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.506021 [6 CDs: 69:47 + 65:58 + 64:20 + 60:32 + 56:55 + 52:58]
The first complete orchestral Barber set makes its appearance on the market in the year of the composer’s centenary. It’s a pretty impressive set of readings too. The format is a light card box housing the six CDs presented each in its own original jewel case. These discs were first issued individually during the first half of first decade of the new millennium.
The first disc showcases the two symphonies. After the picaresquely Waltonian overture with its oboe-led caramel core comes a sturdily italicised reading of the First Symphony in which Alsop takes time to stop and stare. This is not the possessed overcast reading we encounter with Measham or Walter. It has instead a sharply defined vitality which other readings do not capture. Barber loves the oboe as we heard in the relaxed serenade at the heart of the Scandal overture and as we also hear again in the Andante Tranquillo of this symphony. The whole thing is most beautifully recorded and the Baxian magnificence of the final segment is put across with singular weight and emphasis.
After the First Symphony there’s the brooding First Essay (the first of three). Again Measham does this exceptionally well but his now venerable 1970s recording for Unicorn cannot match Naxos's engineering team's results.
The WWII Second Symphony (withdrawn by the composer) lacks the passionate cogency of the First Symphony. Even so it is not without attractions. The rapped-out rhythmic ‘grit’ in the outer movements is among its strengths close to contemporary works by Schuman and Rosenberg. You can hear the composer's own version of this work as recorded in 1951 with the New Symphony Orchestra; it's on Pearl. The central slow movement by Alsop is most affectingly done - this is probably its best outing ever. As for the finale its glued together structures present no obstacle to enjoyment of the episodes including the sense of an arching sombre Bachian chorale.
Alsop and Warner lend the Cello Concerto a singing liveliness. It's a fragile creation despite its romantically elongated melodic material and can tip over into a generalised noodling as it does in the central movement. Then again the finale works very well here with the soloist giving the sense of looking over her shoulder as something wicked this way comes.
The seven movement Medea ballet suite derives from the ballet Barber wrote for Martha Graham. It began life as Cave of the Heart then took on the title Serpent Heart. The suite heard here was premiered by the Philadelphia with Ormandy on 5 December 1947. Barber in 1955 took three of the seven movements and wrought them into another work: Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. The extended suite runs a couple of minutes short of half an hour and is suitably dramatic if lightened by some Poulencian innocence (The Young Princess). In the Medea movement a chilly tension emerges into the light. An orchestral piano adds to the texture as it does in the Second Symphony.
We end this disc with the famous Adagio taken at a contemplative walking pace. That moment of silence when the violins boil to unbearable pitch is superbly carried off by Alsop.
The Violin Concerto was written for the child prodigy and Flesch pupil, Iso Briselli, but ended up being premiered by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphians and Ormandy on 7 February 1941.
Buswell – first known widely for his solo in the RVW Concerto Accademico as part of the Previn cycle in the late 1960s - gives a thoughtful and refreshing reading. Certainly it is less relentless and does not invade the listener’s space as much as the dazzling Isaac Stern classic. A slight downside is the tendency to thinness in the string sound for this disc. Coordination is excellent - just listen to the dashing Presto and the discreetly chattering precision trumpet work at 2.55.
Souvenirs is a favourite of mine, discovered when I heard it in 1977 played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Ashley Lawrence in a BBC Radio 3 Matinée Musicale programme. There have not been many recordings (Serebrier and Slatkin) but Alsop’s remains the best so far – though Serebrier is very close. The six movement ballet suite takes as its subject the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel, 1914 with each movement focusing on a different part of the hotel - from lobby, to Third Floor Hallway, to Corner of Ballroom, to Tea in the Palm Court, to a Bedroom Affair and a finale simply called The Next Afternoon. The style is Gallic, plenty of Ravel, some Offenbach and Poulenc (Les Biches). Sample the delectably breathless Two-step and then prepare yourself for the sultry Hesitation Tango which rises to an orgasmic climax - yes the subtitle is A Bedroom Affair. Here Alsop and the Glaswegian orchestra pace the moment to perfection and the dramatic peak, when it comes, is voluptuously done (2.21) by the French horns. The music then sinks back into the pillows.
The rather vapid and cold Serenade for Strings (his Op. 1) has never been one of my preferred Barber works but it is tenderly done by the RSNO.
Music for a Scene from Shelley takes us back into the torrid nocturnal damask which is Barber's natural milieu. It dates from 1933 and was written after the composer had been reading Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound'. This builds quickly from shadowlands to Sibelian climacterics - a full-bloodedly romantic, not to say melodramatic, piece written perhaps with knowledge of Howard Hanson's first two symphonies.
Prutsman gives a superb reading of the Piano Concerto for years 'owned' by John Browning and CBS-Sony. It's a big sturdy imaginative piece and won me round in this reading far more than any previous version - especially the romantically succulent Canzone central movement; such a contrast to the pounding power of the flanking ones.
Die Natali is a gently bejewelled confection of Christmas carols premiered by Munch at Boston in 1960. It sounds very well here.
Then comes Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Thought I would not want to lose the Medea Suite this bipartite piece does inhabit the material more effectually than the more extended treatments. Its move from Ravelian limpid to stalking surging violence impresses enormously.
I heard the Commando March recently on Pristine's revival of the various live 1940s recordings of the Boston SO conducted by Koussevitsky. This march seems more Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and even RVW Somerset folksongs than anything more gritty. It’s Hollywood rather than Salerno or Utah Beach.
Knoxville is a work whose praises I have already sung in my reviews of the Steber (Sony), McGurk (Regis) and Upshaw (Teldec). This nostalgia-soaked soliloquy is part scena, part meditation. The singer’s key to success is achieving a balance of clarity of enunciation and satisfying the work’s opulent operatic demands. Upshaw manages the best overall and does so most movingly. The historic mono recording by Steber is unmissable for serious Barber fans though is beginning to sound shrill. McGurk and Gauvin are very similar in vocal signature. Gauvin piles on the pressure when called for yet can relax and be confiding when necessary. She poignantly suggests the child in James Agee's picture of a family lying on their backs in the garden looking up at the stars.
The two orchestral Essays stare at each other across 34 years. The Second Essay belongs to 1942, a Bruno Walter commission (Walter had famously recorded the First Symphony - now on Pearl). Its heated late-romantic style was in keeping with the times although the first signs of cultural trends peeling away from Barber were in the air. The Third Essay is given a suitably torrid outing with much darkly refulgent tone but direct tunes are fleeting visitors. Again this is warm music-making; when premiered it must have seemed gear-crunchingly out of step with the musical norms of the time. A generous and often enjoyable slice of Barber written five years before his death.
The Toccata Festiva is of about the same duration as the Third Essay. The tender rocking theme at 2.30 onwards is notable. At 5.01 there are some dissonant orchestral protests and the Straussian upward-striking gestures at 6.20 link with Souvenirs. There is also some very nice dynamic terracing by the horns (8.00).
This has to be the most humane and yieldingly emotional Capricorn I have ever heard ... and this from a work that usually remains obdurately dry. The lyrical facets seem linked here with the ecstatic style of Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. There are some lovely moments and they include the nocturnal musings of the Allegro con brio.
From a work that never quite took root with me to another I have loved since I first heard the classic Vanguard recording. A Hand of Bridge is a chamber opera of less than ten minutes duration to a libretto by Barber’s partner Menotti and scored for chamber orchestra with four (here) un-named singers. The plot takes its tension from the stultifying routine of a nightly game of bridge and the counterpoint of the vocalised inner thoughts of the four players. The wordplay and musical setting is irresistible, the words are as clever as Sondheim. Catchy phrases and lyrical cells include: ‘I want to buy that hat of peacock feathers!’ and the deliciously insouciant ‘Cymbeline, Cymbeline, where are you tonight?’. When the downtrodden of the two men dreams of power and riches he sings with wistful lasciviousness of his fantasy of ‘every day another version of every known perversion.’ Shallowness, hatred, passion and yearning are wrapped up in acid-clever lyrics.
The Vanguard version uses voices that are more Broadway than Opera. It has to be said that while the Naxos roll-call is very fine but the music-theatre style is better suited to this intimate little work. The Vanguard CD (if you can track one down) is SVC 123 49.55.
This is the first time I have heard the Bach Mutations. It has a sombre Purcellian majesty with moments that can be likened to the ceremonial Finzi. The scoring is for a large brass ensemble. It was written during Barber’s very last years when he preferred to write for his own satisfaction. Fashion and culture had seemingly turned forever against him. He lived to see the first signs that the tide was flowing in his favour.
The Vanessa Intermezzo is given a chamber balance with the harp, oboe and flute seeming to carol very close to the listener. This is magical writing and playing is touchingly poised between fulfilled love and a faintly limned melancholy. The mood is elusive but is superbly defined by Marin Alsop and the orchestra. Vanessa is now clambering back to prominence among the record-buying public. Not so very long ago there was a complete Vanessa from Naxos and there is also Leonard Slatkin’s BBC recording with Chandos; not to mention the original Schippers set.
The Canzonetta is a succulent piece. Stéphane Rancourt’s oboe tone reminds me of that of Goossens. The music is Debussian at one moment and Finzian the next. This masterly performance radiates a certain breathless Bergian passion as well as a calmly drowsy Hollywood glow. Harold Gomberg had commissioned a multi-movement Oboe Concerto from the ageing and disillusioned composer but had to settle for this single episode. It was completed by Charles Turner - Barber’s only student. The piece would go rather well with Gerald Finzi’s oboe and strings Interlude. Gomberg gave the world premiere in 1978 with the orchestra of which he was the oboe Principal, the NYPO conducted by Zubin Mehta. This is not the first recording. There is a good alternative version on ASV CD DCA 737. Julia Girdwood is the oboist and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is there directed by Jose Serebrier. However this version goes straight to the top of the recommendation lists. Absolutely superb!
The title of Fadograph of a Yestern Scene is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. It was commissioned by ALCOA for the Pittsburgh Orchestra who premiered it on 11 September 1971 under William Steinberg. It was taken up by only a few American orchestras (including the Clevelanders conducted by Louis Lane) and is as great a rarity as the Mutations. It was Barber’s last substantial orchestral work; unrepentantly intense and romantic and written against the torrent of the times. Think of it as virtually another Essay (to add to the three so-named) and a companion to the much earlier Scene from Shelley.
The RSNO positively glows in this extremely welcome and romantically rewarding and alluringly-priced set. It hardly matters that this is in fact the only such collection. Watch out for Naxos’s box of the complete William Schuman symphonies and let’s hope that Naxos will also deliver complete Piston, Creston, Rochberg and even Hovhaness sets in the fullness of time.
– Naxos – Alsop on MusicWeb International