In a series of recordings that has gone from unusual
and interesting to groundbreaking and formidable, Naxos continues their
survey of the works of American composers with this disc of orchestral
pieces by Samuel Barber, who was perhaps the most accomplished American
composer since Copland.
In stark contrast to the hauntingly lyrical concerto
for violin, the piano concerto, conceived for the talents of pianist
John Browning is a virtuoso tour de force, replete with thundering
octaves, thick chordal passages and intricate counterpoint. The achingly
melancholy middle movement is certainly a thing of beauty, but behind
this beauty lies a palpable sadness. Stephen Prutsman is a fine soloist,
clean and precise in his passagework, firm and forceful in bravura passages
and, best of all, he has a lovely cantabile that he demonstrates to
the fullest in the middle movement. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra
accompany flawlessly with special recognition to the principal wind
players for their outstanding solo work. Marin Alsop is a younger generation
conductor to be reckoned with. She is in complete control of her ensemble.
Her vision is clear and the precision that she elicits from the orchestra
is vital and invigorating.
Die Natali, as the name implies, is a work based
on Christmas tunes. Written at the behest of the Koussevitsky foundation
in memory of the famous conductor and his wife, this suite was given
its premiere by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1960.
A complete charmer, this tender work is a refreshing alternative to
the overly sentimental music typical of the holiday season. Ms. Alsop
leads a beautifully paced reading.
Martha Graham should get double laurels for her contribution
to American art. Her company was one of the most original and influential
in the history of professional dancing, and as a result, she was able
to inspire the creation of several musical masterworks. Perhaps Medea
will not be remembered in its original guise, but certainly the
tone poem that Barber distilled from his dance suite has become and
will remain a staple of the orchestral repertoire. This is perhaps the
composer’s most picturesque of scores. There is nothing in this reading
to disappoint. Mysterious and grand, this a performance that can stand
up to the famous readings by Bernstein and Schippers, and is a worthy
addition to that panoply.
This excellent recital is rounded off with a rollicking
rendition of the Commando March, written in 1943 for military
band, it was later fully orchestrated by the composer. Seldom heard
in concert, this would make a great addition to a patriotic program.
Recorded sound here is excellent. Richard Whitehouse’s
notes are somewhat typical of what I have read of his in the past. His
misuse of jargon is annoying as is his tendency to describe a work of
art as if he were reciting a recipe. For so important a series of recordings,
one would think that Naxos could do better.