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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)

Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1939-40) ╣
Piano Concerto, Op. 38 (1962) ▓│
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 (1938) ▓
Let Down the Bars, O Death║; Heaven Haven║; The Virgin Martyrs║; God's Grandeur (1938) ║
Itta Shapira, violin╣
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra╣/Thomas Sanderling╣
Tedd Joselson, piano│
London Symphony Orchestra▓/Andrew Schenck▓
Joyful Company of Singers║/Peter Broadbent║
Recorded in Studio 5, DSS, Moscow 21st-25th July 2001╣, All Saints, Tooting, London▓│ (date not given), Angel Studios, London, 19th-21st May 1995║
ASV PLATINUM PLT 8501 [74.07]


This disc consists of a newly recorded version of the Violin Concerto plus items from ASV's back catalogue of Barber. It is a nice CD but has to be recommended with certain provisos. The aforementioned Violin Concerto is probably Barber's best work (his only other truly essential piece is, to my mind, Knoxville - not included here), although, from sheer familiarity, I suppose the Adagio has to figure somewhere. This is a varied and wide-ranging collection but does not, ultimately, show this composer in his best/greatest light.

The young Israeli violinist Itta Shapira recorded a very acceptable contribution to EMI's Debut series, including some excellent Bloch, and here he acquits himself well. Thomas Sanderling is also a conductor we really ought to hear more of and he draws a good performance from his Moscow forces. Shapira performs well but the problem with this concerto is that the competition is so stiff - my benchmark remains the Bernstein/Stern (Sony) but Joshua Bell, James Buswell, Elmar Oliviera etc. have also recorded strong versions more recently. In this context, I am happy to report that Shapira gives an idiomatic, if not classic, account - the first two, neo-romantic movements are not at all overblown (one of the great things about this piece is its simultaneous lyricism and spareness) and the very British (Scottish?) atmosphere of the opening Allegro is well caught.

The late Andrew Schenck displayed a special way with Barber both on his Koch and ASV discs and his contributions here are representative. The Adagio is as good a version as you could wish for, although for this listener, having heard and, indeed, purchased (often by default) so many versions of this piece, the original string quartet setting now has a much more meaningful resonance (try the Kronos or Eberle recordings for two very different approaches). The Piano Concerto is not, to my mind, one of the composer's best large scale works, lacking in memorable tunes. The original recording by its dedicatee John Browning has a certain something but, like the Cello Concerto, it always comes over as a much inferior relation to the violin masterpiece.

The other pieces recorded here are vocal and represent a good contrast to the other items. They are well performed but the only one that made a lasting impression was the setting of Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins' Heaven Haven. Barber's vocal muse (the wonderful and unique Knoxville excepted) was a fairly austere one but this piece has an added, soaring dimension on the others.

Overall then, no-one buying this disc and encountering the superb Violin Concerto for the first time is going to be in any way disappointed but many of the other items come across as pale shadows in comparison. Any supposedly definitive Barber compilation that omits Knoxville is, ultimately, going to be lacking a fundamental aspect of the composer's main output.

Neil Horner

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