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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Overture: The School for Scandal, Op. 5 (1932) [8.39]
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24* (1947) [17.08]
First Essay, Op. 12 (1937) [8.04]
Second Essay, Op. 17 (1942) [10.02]
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 (1937) [8.12]
Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23 [12.45]
*Sylvia McNair (soprano)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
rec. 4 March 1991 (Knoxville, Second Essay, Adagio); 13 April 1991 (Overture, First Essay, Medea’s Dance), Woodruff Memorial Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia
TELARC CD-80250 [65.29]


The combination of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Yoel Levi has been responsible for several notably successful recordings for Telarc; this Barber disc is another of them. The assembled programme is a strong one, covering much fine music from the ’thirties and ’forties, when Barber established his position as a major figure on the international stage.

Those who know the Overture to The School for Scandal – the musicians especially – will testify that in terms of rhythmic complexity and ensemble it is one of the most challenging pieces in the orchestral repertory. The Atlanta players meet the challenge, to be sure, and in doing so they set their standard. The clarity and vibrancy of the recorded sound gives Barber every support too.

Plaudits as to virtuosity are also deserved in the two Essays and Medea’s Dance. In these pieces Barber shows himself a true master of the orchestra, with scoring that brings out the most from the musical material. For example, both Essays find some beautifully realised shadings of dynamic, while the opening of Medea’s Dance – known as her Meditation, is captured to perfection. While these performances do not surpass the highly successful rival Naxos versions with Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, they do achieve the same high standard of playing, interpretation and recording. And if the different repertoire combinations suit, that might be the compelling factor.

The Adagio for Strings, Barber’s most celebrated piece, of course, still sounds as fresh as the day it was rewritten (from his String Quartet). Again the dynamic shadings are a significant factor in Levi’s performance, and he certainly knows how to hold an eloquent line of expression. With excellent sound this can hold its own against a crowded field of rival versions.

Knoxville, one of Barber’s most beautiful and imaginative creations, has the advantage of a major solo artist in Sylvia McNair. Her performance has all the vision and sensitivity that Barber demands, though not everyone will be comfortable with the quality and closeness of her voice as far as the imagery of the child’s narrative is concerned. Again the tempi are well chosen and the phrasing is eloquent.

This well produced and beautifully performed disc is supported by excellent and thorough documentation, with detailed notes by Richard Rodda.

Terry Barfoot

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