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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto Op. 14 (1939)
Isaac Stern (violin) New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein, recorded 1964
Piano Concerto Op. 38 (1962)
John Browning (piano) Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell, recorded 1964
Adagio for Strings Op. 11 (1938)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy, recorded 1957
Essay for orchestra No. 2 Op. 17
The School for Scandal - Overture Op. 5 (1933)
Stern, BrowningNew York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers, recorded 1965
SONY CLASSICAL SBK87948 [74.09]


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Is there anyone who doesn’t have this classic concerto coupling (emails to the editor please)? Though they were recorded in the same year, 1964, the Violin and Piano concertos were issued separately and it was not until later that they became harnessed together, in which form many will have first encountered them, either on the classic CBS LP or subsequent reissues. This latest Sony Classical is a straight reissue of SMK60004, which came out c1998 and I don’t think it necessary to detain you long with the plaudits.

The Concerto is the classic Stern/Bernstein. Short of digging up Albert Spalding to reprise his premiere performance I’ve never wavered in my admiration for this disc, close-up CBS sound or not. It’s true that the dynamic ranges are not helped by the production, that the expressive pianissimi never quite register as they should, but that’s a small price to pay for the drive and drama of the opening movement and the double basses’ succulent theme at 5.40, Stern’s exceptional eloquence and touching soaring cantilena, and his leonine explosivity and bravura in the finale et al. Incidentally I’m not quite sure if Julian Haylock’s notes reprise those for the previous issue or if they were written specifically for this one, but surely an old fiddle fancier like Haylock knows the identity by now of the young violinist who commissioned the work and whose "identity remains something of a mystery"? Not to me – it was the presumptuous Iso Briselli, who has long since atoned via his charitable work in Philadelphia.

The Piano Concerto clearly has less of a hold on the public’s attentions, as is reflected in the volume of recordings and performances. This is the earlier of Browning’s two recordings and in terms of drive, power, concision and strength demonstrably, I think, the finer (the other was the 1991 RCA St Louis/Slatkin). Szell’s forces are more energised and Browning makes that much a convincing case for the solo part in 1964. This is not to imply technical or other concessions in the 1991 recording, or that Slatkin is any way flabby or negligent, rather that Szell is on frequently invincible form. It’s also fair to say that the sound accorded the Piano Concerto is slightly more amenable than that for its companion.

I’d hardly call the other works ‘fillers’; the Essay for Orchestra is the famous Schippers disc recorded in New York and sounding very well here. An incisive and powerful piece, though not superior to the first Essay (which you should try to catch in Ormandy’s Philadelphia recording) few recordings can match this one, nor the fizzy School for Scandal overture. The Adagio for Strings comes from the aforementioned forces of Ormandy and the Philadelphians. I’d not heard it in a long while and was prepared for a wallow – which shows how you should never prejudge things, because there’s noble expression quite without specious swellings and underlinings and a sense of free-flowing lyricism that stands as an admirable rebuke to more self-indulgent practitioners of the art.

This is self-evidently a disc that needs little more encomia from me – an Essential Classic that preserves performances of outstanding commitment and understanding.

Jonathan Woolf

 



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