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Samuel BARBER (1910-81)
Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 (1936) [20.56]
Essay No. 1 Op. 12 (1938) [8.46]
Essay No. 2 Op. 17 (1942) [11.49]
Night Flight Op. 19a (1944) [9.08]
Music for a Scene from Shelley Op. 7 (1933) [10.19]
Knoxville; Summer of 1915 (1948) [16.18]
Molly McGurk (sop) (Knoxville)
London Symphony Orchestra/David Measham (Symphony; Essays; Night Flight)
West Australian Symphony Orchestra/David Measham (Knoxville; Shelley)
rec. 1973. ADD
REGIS RRC 1139 [78.04]

In repertoire terms David Measham was to commercial recording what Norman Del Mar was to the radio studio. Del Mar's studio-taped programmes were unafraid of unfashionable choices - mixing Balakirev, Shostakovich, Seiber, Lambert, Bax, Searle and Strauss. Measham was one of Unicorn's regulars during the 1970s recording with them Josephs (Requiem and Pastoral Symphony), Goossens (Symphony No. 1), Miaskovsky (Symphony No. 21), Kabalevsky (Symphony No. 2) and Barber among others. His Barber was true to romantic type: humid, perfervid; hothouse stuff put across with tireless confidence and full response to variety of mood.

Regis faced a timing problem in re-running these tapes. The two Barber Unicorn LPs were made up of the LSO collection RHS 342 (Symphony, Essays and Night Flight) and the WASO LP UNS256 (Knoxville, Violin Concerto and Shelley Scene). This was too much for one CD. What to omit? The final choice fell on the Violin Concerto. Although a fine performance the shelves already groan with excellent readings of the concerto. Recordings of Knoxville are not quite so common. It is a while since I heard the versions by Leontyne Price and Barbara Hendricks, however Molly McGurk is a sensitive singer and has the necessary heft for the big moments. More to the point you can fully believe her assumption of the child's viewpoint central to James Agee's meditation. Steber's classic recording now sounds a mite shrill but the closest approach to perfection is Dawn Upshaw's on Teldec - a pity it was never tackled by Netania Davrath. McGurk's voice has the operatic 'chops' for the work's stormy crests yet has enough innocence to do justice to the predominantly childlike viewpoint. Barber chose or was chosen by this hardly apt text and made of it a masterpiece that quickly gets under the skin.

The other works are very much of a piece in mood. The clouds lour, great passionate oratory breathes through the pages. Even the Barber works of the 1940s remain in touch with the cliff-edge passions and tragedy of the symphonic 1930s. The Symphony belongs to the world of Walton's First, Rubbra's First, RVW's Fourth and Bax's Sixth. It is a shade melodramatic but this is not its weakness; for that we must look to the lack of indelibly memorable themes. It is still a work with a potent emotional charge linking to other Rome-based pieces such as Hanson's First and Second Symphonies. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, then continuing to take the world by storm, is also hinted at at least once. Its one movement structure points towards the 'recentish' Sibelius Seventh Symphony. Another much later work indebted to the Barber is the Flagello Symphony recently issued on Naxos American Classics. Roy Harris's aggressive syncopated rhythmic inclinations can be heard from 08.00 onwards.

Essay No. 1 with its dour Slavonic intensity suffers from lack of memorable themes. However the burnished Second Essay is superb (listen to the coarsened French Horns at 3.58) as also is the very early Shelley work with its happy fusion of beauty and dramatic statement. Night Flight is more subdued; more concentrated and its portrayal of romantic loneliness (based on 'Vol de Nuit' by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the author of 'Wind, Sand and Stars' and 'The Little Prince') is intensified by the ‘pecking’ piano motif representing the radio beacon that keeps the pilot on course for home. It is a superb piece. It can now be heard in its proper context in Marin Alsop's Naxos CD of the two symphonies and also directed by Barber on Pearl. The Shelley Scene has some decidedly Sibelian moments including several references to ideas paralleled in the Fifth Symphony. It is a fine and well formed work which, just like the Essays, could just as easily have served as movements in a Symphony.

The LSO tracks are superb and possibly speak not just of Measham's coaching but of Previn's sovereign years with them. The sessions took place while Previn was still in 'office' there.

Regis's cover designs can seem clunky suggesting their bargain basement placement. In this case however a sure eye for pleasing colour and object symmetry/consonance is evident; one of their very best

This is a smashing Barber orchestral collection in which the superheated radiance of the orchestral works of the 1930s and 1940s contrasts with the distilled nostalgia of Knoxville, his most penetratingly poignant and moving work - yes, even taking account of the Adagio.

Rob Barnett

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