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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Capricorn Concerto (1944) [14:08]
A Hand of Bridge (1959) [9:44]
Mutations from Bach (1979?) [5:43]
Intermezzo from Vanessa (1958) [4:26]
Canzonetta for oboe and strings (1978) [8:46]
Fadograph of a Yestern Scene (1971) [9:40]
Stéphane Rancourt (oboe); John Gracie (trumpet); Karen Jones (flute)
Lesley Craigie (sop); Roderick Williams (bass); Louise Winter (mezzo); Simon Wall, (ten) (A Hand of Bridge)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 12 May 2000 (Fadograph); 27 Oct 2002 (Intermezzo; Canzonetta); 9 Feb 2003 (Capricorn; Bride; Mutations)


So we come to the sixth and final volume in Naxos’s outstanding complete orchestral works series. No other company has ever attempted such a project. From conception to fulfilment this has been expertly done. Everything reflects great credit on Naxos and Alsop and this last volume has intrinsic rewards and the satisfactions. It is not a case of barrel scrapings.

And what are those rewards and satisfaction? For a start this version has to be the most humane and yieldingly emotional Capricorn I have ever heard ... and this from a work that usually remains obdurately dry. The lyrical facets seem linked here with the ecstatic style of Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. There are some lovely moments and they include the waking nocturnal musings of the Allegro con brio. Strongly recommended.

From a work that never quite took root with me to another I have loved since I first heard the classic (until now only). A Hand of Bridge is to a libretto by Barber’s partner Menotti. It is a chamber opera - short (less than ten minutes - about the length of an operatic overture) and economically scored for chamber orchestra. There are only four singers not that Naxos name them anywhere except on their website.

The plot takes its tension from the stultifying routine of a nightly game of bridge and the counterpoint of the vocalised inner thoughts of the four players. The wordplay and musical setting is irresistible, the words are as clever as Sondheim - well almost and in fact Sondheim could plausibly have been the author. The psychological counterpoint of thoughts sung and the pedestrian words of the card-game is extremely engaging.

Catchy phrases and lyrical cells include: ‘I want to buy that hat of peacock feathers!’ and the deliciously insouciant ‘Cymbeline, Cymbeline, where are you tonight?’. When the downtrodden of the two men dreams of power and riches he sings with wistful lasciviousness of his fantasy of ‘every day another version of every known perversion.’ Shallowness, hatred, passion and yearning wrapped up in acid-clever lyrics; all these are the order of the day.

There is another recording of this chamber opera. It has been around for four decades on the Vanguard label. It uses voices that are more Broadway than Opera. It has to be said that while the Naxos roll-call is of singers is very fine the music-theatre style is better suited to this intimate little work. The Vanguard CD (if you can track one down) is SVC 123 49.55; an anthology also offering Essay No. 2, Music for a Scene from Shelley, A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Serenade for Strings and the famous Adagio. The performers are the Symphony of the Air conducted by Vladimir Golschmann

This is the first time I have heard the Bach Mutations. It has a sombre Purcellian majesty with moments that can be likened to the ceremonial Finzi. The scoring is for a large and brass ensemble. It was written during Barber’s very last years when he preferred to write for his own satisfaction. Fashion and culture had seemingly turned forever against him. He lived to see the first signs that the tide was turning in his favour.

The Vanessa Intermezzo is given a chamber balance with the harp, oboe and flute seeming to carol very close to the listener. This is magical writing and playing touchingly balanced between a faintly limned melancholy and fulfilled love. The mood is elusive but is superbly defined by Marin Alsop and the orchestra. Vanessa is now clambering back to prominence among the record-buying public. Not so very long ago there was a complete Vanessa from Naxos and very recently we have had Leonard Slatkin’s BBC recording with Chandos.

The liner notes are by Daniel Felsenfeld. These are excellent but not perfect; the author of the tale on which Vanessa is founded is Isak Dinesen (the pen-name of the author of ‘Out of Africa’) not Isak Dennisen.

The Canzonetta a succulent piece. The tone of soloist Stéphane Rancourt reminds me of Goossens. The music is Debussian at one moment and like Finzi the next. This masterly performance radiates a certain breathless Bergian passion as well as a calmly drowsy Hollywood glow.

The work Harold Gomberg had commissioned from the ageing and disillusioned composer was a multi-movement Oboe Concerto but he had to settle for this single movement piece. It was completed by Charles Turner - Barber’s only student. It would go rather well with Gerald Finzi’s oboe and strings Interlude as arranged by Howard Ferguson.

Gomberg gave the world premiere of the Canzonetta in 1978 with the orchestra of which he was the oboe Principal, the NYPO conducted by Zubin Mehta. This is not the first recording. There is a good alternative version on ASV CD DCA 737. Julia Girdwood is the oboist and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is directed by Jose Serebrier. However this version goes straight to the top of the recommendation lists. Absolutely superb!

The title of Fadograph of a Yestern Scene is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. It was commissioned by Alcoa for the Pittsburgh Orchestra who premiered it on 11 September 1971 under the baton of William Steinberg. It was taken up by only a few American orchestras (including the Clevelanders conducted by Louis Lane) and is as great a rarity as the Mutations. It was Barber’s last substantial orchestral work; unrepentantly intense and romantic and written against the torrent of the times. Think of it as virtually another Essay (to add to the three so-named) and a companion to the much earlier Scene from Shelley.

If I had to go looking for something to gripe about it would be the ungenerous playing time and the failure to identify the singers but frankly it is not something you are still thinking about by the time you get to the end of this excellent disc.

The RSNO strings positively glow in this extremely welcome and romantically rewarding anthology.

Rob Barnett

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