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alternatively Crotchet

Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Concerto for violin and orchestra, Op.14 (1939-41): Allegro [10:12]; Andante [8:27]; Presto in modo perpetuo [3:55]
Concerto for piano and orchestra, Op.38 (1962): Allegro appassionato [12:47]; Canzone: Moderato [7:03]; Allegro molto [5:46])
Adagio for Strings, Op.11 (1936)[7:43]
Second Essay for Orchestra, Op.17 (1942) [10:43]
Overture to The School for Scandal, Op.5 (1933) [7:33]
Isaac Stern (violin)/New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein (op. 14); John Browning (piano)/Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell (38) ; Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (11); New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers (5, 17)
rec. 27 April 1964, Manhattan Center, New York (14); January 1964, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio (38); 14 April 1957, Broadwood Hotel, Philadelphia (11); 26 January 1965, Manhattan Center, New York (5, 17). ADD

First, some slightly complicated catalogue matters. This is a straight reissue, at a lower price, of SMK60004, issued at mid-price some ten years ago. In fact, the matrix number suggests that the disc has not been re-mastered but has simply been re-pressed with a new label and catalogue number. The Violin Concerto and the Adagio (this time under Bernstein) are also still available on another mid-price CD, 5162352 (formerly SMK63088), coupled with works by Copland, Ives and William Schuman. A third coupling on yet another mid-price Sony CD with the Violin and Piano Concertos (as here) combined with Yo-Yo Ma’s account of the Cello Concerto, is on SMK89751.
Having heard the Barber Violin Concerto at the Proms, many people will currently be looking for a recommendable CD version. This concerto, which rapidly established itself as one of the minor masterpieces of the 20th-century repertoire, received a fine performance at that Prom from James Ehnes and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop, a combination which is, sadly, unlikely ever to find its way onto CD: Naxos already have an Alsop recording of the work, with Buswell and the RSNO (8.559044): given generally favourable reviews by Rob Barnett and John Phillips here on Musicweb. Ehnes, too, has recorded the work for Onyx Classics, ONYX4016, coupled with Korngold and Walton and very favourably reviewed all round: Kevin Sutton and Michael Cookson made it a Recording of the Month.
For many this version by Isaac Stern, at its new bargain price and generously coupled, will seem an ideal purchase: Rob Barnett maintained his allegiance to its incarnation with the Piano and Cello Concertos. Having owned it, coupled as here with John Browning’s recording of the Piano Concerto, long ago on a CBS Classics LP, I decided to see how it was holding up well into its fourth decade.
Both concertos were recorded in 1964, at a time when it was almost mandatory for American recordings to spotlight the soloist: however carefully the recording is re-mastered, there is little that can be done about this. The problem with these recordings is that the master-tape clearly also places the orchestras, especially the NYPO in the Violin Concerto, too forward, so that the sound reaches the listener in a largely undifferentiated bloc. The only thing to be grateful for is that I understand that the sound on the alternative Schuman coupling is a degree more forward still.
As I remember, the LP version added a degree of distortion to the mix which, thankfully, is not present on the CD. I did, however, initially forget that I had turned the volume a little higher than normal to accommodate a recording which I had just played which required this. At this higher volume the sound, while not distorted, was very hard and I began to think it little improved on its LP appearance; it was only when I started the CD again at a slightly lower volume than my norm that it began to sound satisfactory and even then it sounded harsher than the Radio 3 broadcast from the Proms. Once again, I’d like to thank the BBC engineers for listening to all of us who tried to persuade them this time last year that 160kbps was not enough for digital music broadcasting; they finally restored Radio 3 to 192kbps, which is at least adequate, though still less than those same engineers once said would be ideal.
I have already indicated my disappointment that Ehnes and Alsop together are unlikely ever to make a commercial version of the Barber, since the performance was so fine – bringing out the late-romantic elements, especially in the first movement, without ever sounding schmaltzy. I certainly did not share the feeling of one reviewer that the performance was lacking in wistful introspection. Marin Alsop was, of course, a Bernstein protégé so it is not surprising that the tempi for the Proms performance were very similar to the Stern/Bernstein recording – very slightly broader, if anything, but that impression is probably partly due to the fact that the broadcast allowed a greater degree of hushed intensity in the Andante than does the up-front Sony recording, which is especially off-putting in this movement. (I note that some reviewers who were actually in the Albert Hall commented on the soft-grained string sound in the Andante, so it was not just a characteristic of the broadcast.) Even in the Finale, where the performance was suitably sparkling, there was a sense of something held in reserve until the whole thing was brought to a rousing conclusion. Ehnes never allowed virtuosity to become showy or to stand in the way of a truly musical experience and the support which he received from the Bournemouth SO and Alsop was outstanding.
Of course, everything that can be said of Ehnes is true of Stern also: it is almost axiomatic that his, the first stereo performance, set the benchmark for all later versions. I should be very surprised if Ehnes had not listened to Stern, who fully deserves all the adjectives which have been showered on his playing: soulful, inspired, superlative, warm and humane, to mention but a few. It may even be that the New York Phil played as softly as the Bournemouth SO in the Andante – it’s just that the forward recording doesn’t allow us to hear if this is so. When one reviewer speaks of this movement on the Sony recording as glorious, I cannot demur, but I have to listen imaginatively through the recording to hear it.
This was the first-ever recording of the Piano Concerto – Browning was its dedicatee – and it has stood the test of time well as a performance: in fact, there has been very little competition – by general consent Browning’s own RCA remake with Slatkin did not match it, lacking the fire of this version with Szell, despite the more modern (1990) recording. That remake is currently available at mid-price with the Violin and Cello Concertos on 82876 65832 2 or on a bargain-price 2-CD set, 74321 98704 2, a Bargain of the Month (John Quinn, May 2004.)
If anything the recording here is harder than that of the Violin Concerto at normal volume or higher but, fortunately, in this tougher, less lyrical work a forward recording, with the piano almost spotlit, does less to detract from the strength of the performance. The mini-cadenza for the piano at the opening sets the tougher tone; it is not until some two minutes after the orchestra has joined in that there are moments of lyricism – and even these are punctuated. The recording captures the muted strings in the Canzone second movement better than in the Andante of the Violin Concerto, though in the louder passages of the Piano Concerto the upper strings sound somewhat glassy.
Hubert Culot, reviewing the Naxos version (Prutsman/RNSO/Alsop on 8.559133) advocated abandoning Browning – “in spite of his dedicated advocacy, I have always felt that this was Barber’s weakest concerto” – for the new recording: a Musicweb Disc of the Month in December 2002.
The other works on the CD receive very good performances under Ormandy and Schippers and the recordings are all more than adequate. The Adagio for Strings follows rather too hard on the heels of the Piano Concerto for my liking – and many collectors will already have umpteen versions of this ubiquitous work. The Overture to The School for Scandal is a substantial work – it was the piece which first established Barber’s reputation – but the Second Essay is the most substantial of these fillers.
Final recommendations? Apart from the RCA single CD or 2-CD set, there are no other couplings of the two concertos. As well as the Buswell/Alsop and Ehnes versions of the Violin Concerto listed above, there are several recommendable recent recordings in the catalogue, of which perhaps Joshua Bell with the Baltimore SO under Zinman, coupled with the Walton concerto and Bloch’s Baal Shem, is probably the finest (reissued at mid-price on Decca Originals 475 7710, confusingly also at a slightly higher price on Decca Awards 476 1723. NB the Penguin Guide gives the wrong number for this CD.) Despite my reservations, I shall still keep this Sony recording with Stern and Browning as my prime reference for the two concertos, but do look at all the reviews to which I have included hyperlinks before you decide.
Alsop and the Bournemouth SO also gave an excellent performance – minor fluffs, inevitable in a live performance, apart – of the Copland Third Symphony in the same Prom concert, which may have inspired some to look for a good version of this work, too. Oddly enough, for such a popular piece, there are not all that many options. My own favourite versions – Mata on EMI and Bernstein on DG or Sony – appear to have been deleted, leaving only two versions available. Järvi on Chandos (with Roy Harris’s evocative Third Symphony) received some less-than-enthusiastic reviews in some quarters, leaving only James Judd with the New Zealand SO on Naxos 8.559106, coupled with Billy the Kid – an extremely convincing performance according to William Hedley’s review. Perhaps someone will get round to reissuing Copland’s own Everest recording with the LSO, my own introduction to this symphony in its World Record Club incarnation. I note that William Hedley similarly treasures memories of an early-1970s concert in which Copland conducted the LSO, so it probably isn’t just a case of distance lending enchantment.
Brian Wilson
see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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