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Samuel BARBER (1910-81)
Compilation: The Best of Barber
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947, arr. for soprano and chamber orchestra 1950* +)
Overture: The School for Scandal (1931) +
Violin Concerto – Andante (1939) +
Piano Concerto – Canzone (1962)◘ +
Adagio for Strings (1938) ¥
Agnus Dei (based on Adagio for Strings) ‡
* Sylvia McNair (soprano)
+ Robert McDuffie (violin)
◘ Jon Kimura Parker (piano)
Robert Shaw Festival Singers/Robert Shaw ‡
Atlanta Symphony + and Saint Louis ¥ Symphony Orchestras/Yoel Levi
Overture and Knoxville were recorded in April 1991; the Concertos in July 1996; all in the Woodruff Arts Centre, Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Georgia. The Adagio for Strings was recorded in the Powell Symphony Hall, St Louis, Missouri in March 1981 and the Agnus Dei in the Church of St Pierre, Gramat, France in July 1994
TELARC CD-80632 [61:17]
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This is a splendid album for young people or newcomers to classical music who want an introduction to the sublime music of Samuel Barber. They should be warned however that this sampler has no notes … only a meagre four page flyer advertising the Telarc CDs from which these selections were sourced.

The first thing to say is that the sound quality throughout is first rate – just what you would expect from Telarc.

What a shame the recordings of the two concertos in their entirety could not have been accommodated on two CD set rather than the single movements, included on this rather meagre, little over 60-minute, compilation. Both concerti originally appeared on TELARC CD-80441 which was applauded by the critics and is included as a notable recommendation in The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs. Both McDuffie and Kimura Parker deliver outstanding performances displaying accomplished technique allied to finely shaded and tenderly poetic expression. Each is radiantly accompanied by Levi’s Atlanta players.

It is also very useful to be able to compare Barber’s ever-popular Adagio for Strings with his adaptation for voices Agnus Dei. Both receive fine well-balanced and clear performances with the Robert Shaw Singers (soprano vocalist, Arietha Lockhart).

The School for Scandal Overture comes over very well in Levi’s hands: sparkling, witty and beautifully tender.

But it is Levi’s wonderfully atmospheric and sympathetic performance of Barber’s masterpiece, Knoxville, his setting of James Agee’s prose poem that makes this compilation so attractive. Here is a glorious nostalgic view of small-town, middle-America, in the first decades of the 20th century, caught in the imaginings of a small boy relaxing with his parents on a summer evening. Levi captures the languid heat and then the jarring note of the street car with its ‘bleak spark cracking and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks’ as well as the mystical elements as the boy prays for his family and contemplates the heavens and wonders why he is here. Sylvia McNair is excellent, her attractively timbred voice nicely controlled and beautifully expressive (you can hear her savouring vanilla and strawberry, for instance). She has a fine sense of the line of the poem, and is uplifting in those wondrous final lines.

A compilation of short works and concerto excerpts recommended to those beginning to appreciate the music of Samuel Barber. Completed by a moving performance, in full, of his masterpiece Knoxville.

Ian Lace



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