> Samuel Barber - Piano Concerto [HC]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Samuel BARBER (1910 – 1981)
Piano Concerto Op. 38 (1962)
Die Natali Op.37 (1960)
Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance Op.23A (1946, rev. 1955)
Commando March (1943)
Stephen Prutsman (piano); Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop
Recorded: Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, March 2001 (Die Natali) and May 2000 (Commando March); Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, March 2002
NAXOS 8.559133


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From the start, Barber’s Piano Concerto was composed on the large Romantic scale. It was written for John Browning who gave the first performance and made the first recording of the work This recording was first released on the EPIC label during the LP era and reissued years later on CBS/SONY. The first movement opens with a big cadenza stating the main themes which are then developed at length in the course of this fairly long movement. The leading theme of the second movement is stated by the flute, thus betraying the movement’s origin. Most of it is based on a slightly earlier Elegy for flute and piano. The final Rondo opens with a brash, brassy gesture giving way to some forceful, energetic writing. A slower section relieves the accumulated tension. The music regains considerable impetus and finally rushes to an abruptly assertive conclusion. For many years, I lived with Browning’s old recording; and, in spite of his dedicated advocacy, I have always felt that this was Barber’s weakest concerto. The present performance by Stephen Prutsman, whom I remember as a finalist of the 1991 Queen Elisabeth Competition, has drastically put the balance straight again.

Die Natali is a free fantasy based on several fairly well-known Christmas carols, with many unexpected variations of the tunes. The scoring is Barber at his very best, at his most inventive. Curiously enough, this lovely work has remained rather neglected, and is still rarely heard or recorded. It has once been recorded by Jorge Mester conducting the Louisville Orchestra (available on ALBANY TROY 021-2). Serviceable as Mester’s reading may have been, this one is definitely better: excellent playing and splendid recording.

Medea Op.23 (and not Op.29 as stated on the back cover) has had a chequered history. This ballet score, for Martha Graham, was written for small orchestral forces similar to those of Copland’s original version of Appalachian Spring. (Recordings of both scores in their chamber version have been – and may still be – available on KOCH.) It then bore the title of The Cave of the Heart, though it was first performed in 1946 as The Serpent Heart. The original title was reinstated in 1947 and later changed to Medea when Barber reworked the score into a seven-movement suite. Later still, in 1944, Barber compressed three movements from the suite into one single movement under the title of Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance Op.23A heard here. This is a satisfying piece of music in its own right though the suite is still more satisfying. Incidentally the suite was recorded many years ago by Howard Hanson and is now available in recent recordings (NAXOS 8.559088, which I have not heard so far, and KOCH 3-7010-2, which I have). In any case, Medea – in any guise – is one of Barber’s major works in which he considerably enlarged his musical and emotional palette and in which he wrote some of his darkest and most violent music. This is a long way from the beautifully lyrical Violin Concerto or the wonderful, nostalgic Knoxville.

The present release ends with the rousing Commando March composed in 1943 when Barber was already busy working on his Second Symphony, and originally scored for wind band, but heard here in the orchestral version made by the composer.

This, the fourth volume of Naxos’s ongoing Barber series, is one of the finest so far. Excellent performances in fine recordings that serve the music well. A splendid release, unreservedly recommended, and my Disc of the Month in any case.

Hubert Culot

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