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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for strings op.11 (1938) [8:35]
Knoxville - Summer of 1915 (1948) [15:40]
Barbara Hendricks (soprano)
London SO/Michael Tilson Thomas
Violin Concerto op. 14 (1939) [24:10]
Overture to the School for Scandal op.5 (1931) [8:24]
Essay for Orchestra No. 1 op. 12 (1937) [9:18]
Medea's Dance of Vengeance op.32a (1946) [13:06]
Elmar Oliveira (violin)
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. May 1994, Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London (Adagio, Knoxville); April 1986 (Concerto), 3 May 1988 (opp. 5, 12, 32a) Powell Hall, Saint Louis, Missouri. DDD 
Experience Classicsonline

This is the most generously timed of the first harvest of EMI Classics' American Classics series. It's bound to appeal to the beginner and the Barber curious - a good collection too although by no means absolutely perfect. After all you get the most famous Barber in the ubiquitous Adagio. The saturation-romantic Violin Concerto is now becoming an increasingly common disc-mate to the Korngold. 

Tilson Thomas's Adagio is a stranger to glitz instead going down the track of dignity and tender feeling. Knoxville is to a prose-poetic nostalgic text by James Agee – the words are not printed in the booklet. Barbara Hendricks engages with the text but her operatic chops sometimes get in the way of the necessary sincerity and sometimes of enunciation. This however remains a fine version and Hendricks shows she can encapsulate the innocence of the child narrator - "On the rough wet grass on the backyard" (8:10) - and the heartbreaking home scene recollected from adulthood. Still my preference remains for Molly McGurk (Regis), Karina Gauvin (Naxos – see review), Sylvia McNair (Telarc – see review), Dawn Upshaw (Nonesuch) and the classic Eleanor Steber (Sony – see review) although when I played the latter the other day Steber seemed harder-toned than I had recalled. Tilson Thomas treats the score like a bloom easily bruised and his delicacy pays off. Oliveira and Slatkin again handle the Concerto with respect and do not load it up with the sort of supercharged cargo that we find with Isaac Stern's classic CBS-Sony version - effectively the only one for many years. This is an eloquent though played down account alongside the hard glare of the Stern, commanding though he is. 

The School for Scandal overture effervesces like an American Bartered Bride. The First Essay shows Barber at his most broodingly romantic and one can see where works such as Flagello's First Symphony (see review) came from. The Essay – first of three - was premiered by Toscanini at the same concert that saw the first performance of the Adagio. The Medea ballet is amongst my favourite Barber (see review). It is quintessential Barber and is here given with an understatement that serves the boiling climaxes well but which could overall have one with more torment as one finds in Measham’s LSO versions on the Regis disc where the Scene from Shelley and the two Essays are given volcanically eruptive performances by David Measham with the LSO (see review). 

A fine, dignified and effective collection glowing with the radiance of integrity.

Rob Barnett


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