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Samuel BARBER (1910-81)
Symphony No 1 ((1936)
Essays for Orchestra: No. 1 (1938) and No. 2 (1942)
Night Flight (1964)
Music for a Scene from Shelley (1936) *
Knoxville (Summer of 1915) (1948) *
Molly McGurk *
London Symphony Orchestra
West Australian Symphony Orchestra *
Conducted by David Measham
A reissue originally from Unicorn-Kanchana; recorded in Sept 1973 in St Giles’ Cripplegate, London
REGIS RRC 1139 [78:04]

This reissue from several Unicorn-Kanchanas is very welcome not least for Measham’s wonderful reading of Barber’s First Symphony (cast in one continuous movement) which deservedly won a three-star rating in the Penguin Guide. It reminds us how well Measham empathised with Barber’s musical language. Especially moving, in this performance, is the Symphony’s lovely slow section with its long plaintive oboe melody over held strings and harp chords, and its great emotional climax. But Measham’s readings of the turbulent opening movement and the equally assertive Passacaglia are just as powerful. One of the best and most committed performances of this Symphony I can remember. Night Flight, is the slow movement of Barber’s Second Symphony, abandoned by its composer after its negative reception, was written at the time of, and influenced by Barber’s service in the US Army Air Force of World War II. With thin but telling orchestration Barber uncannily captures the inky-black sky and atmosphere of anxiety and sheer loneliness of night flying.

Another intense reading is Barber’s Essay No. 1 with its slow meditative opening for sweetly mournful strings before the pace quickens and drama and emotion fired as the music then pushes forward to a more playful section (for woods and piano) but seamed with pathos then brushed brutally aside. The Essay No. 2 is another exciting and atmospheric piece. Written in 1942, this work speaks of its times; urgent, jagged, hard-edged material full of conflict and the brutality of war contrasted with more tender and pastoral music laced with hesitant nervous humour and prayer for ultimate victory.

Scenes from Shelley is the earliest Barber work in this compilation. Composed in 1931, its inspiration is Prometheus Unbound. The connection between the music and Shelley, or the Greek myth for that matter, is somewhat ambiguous but again this is another impressive work that deserves to be better known. Its atmospheric opening for slow swirling strings moves through shredding mist to cataclysmic climaxes and a grand heroic theme with thrilling trumpet ostinatos suggesting sunlight and deliverance.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a hauntingly lovely, often wistful evocation, but without cloying sentiment, of a lazy summer evening in a small American town, the time of day before the poet (James Agee (1909-1955) reminiscing in Partisan Review) as a child is taken off to bed. There are people passing by, others sitting on porches, a tramcar passes by … I am in two minds about Molly McGurk’ light youthful lyric soprano voice; undoubtedly it fits well with the section in which ‘my father and mother have spread quilts…We all lie there…’; and in the poet’s quiet prayer for his people, and in the final celestial ‘but who will ever tell me who I am.’. (Finzi-like in Intimations of Immortality mode). But, although I applaud Measham’s beautifully evocative accompaniment, I would have welcomed a more mellow voice that would imply nostalgia, memories recollected in maturity. The timbre and wider range of Barbara Hendricks with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra is a much more successful and more expressive performance (on EMI 5 55358 2).

Knoxville excepted (Hendricks/Tilson Thomas on EMI, preferred), these are powerful and committed performances of these exciting and atmospheric Barber works.

Ian Lace

see also review by Rob Barnett



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