The Music of America
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
SONY 88697 70278 2 [202:55]
Full tracklist at end of review
Sony Masterworks, drawing on their deep reserves of recorded American music, have moved to celebrate America’s Independence Day (4 July 2010). The Day has been marked with five compactly presented three-disc sets that make up their The Music of America series.
The composers favoured are Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and John Williams. No room it seems for Crumb or Ruggles or Carter or Hovhaness or Piston or Hanson or Schuman or Paine or Farwell or Coerne or Macdowell … oddly enough, Gershwin or Joplin. There are quite a few old friends and memories among these discs and just one surprise - in the Barber set.
While the selections are very good - if pretty familiar to established collectors and music-lovers - the presentation has its irritations. The playing time is not candidly stated on the sleeve for each disc by disc or even as a total. Why? It’s also a bit of a faff getting discs out of the four-way cardboard fold. The sleeve is not the most practical or durable of designs and tends to result in getting finger-marks over the outer edge of the playing surface.
That said, these sets are not at all expensive and are a good way of gaining an introduction to a major slice of the repertoire of each composer. The performances have a settled authority about them and in general sound very good indeed.
This set has a very varied range of provenance with recordings from 1935 to 1992.
Schippers’ superbly calculated and mercurial School for Scandal overture has so much more light and air about it than on previous issues. In fact Schippers emerges from this set as a Barber exponent par excellence.
We then hear the first authorised issue on CD of Barber the baritone - he came from a family of singers. It’s in his own Dover Beach and is replete with seventy years of frying-pan sizzle. Barber serves up a wonderfully mournful and rounded version with the Curtis Quartet but it is almost inevitably for Barber specialists.
Slatkin delivers a finely Symphony No. 1 in all its Sibelian ochre-rich glory. Great 1990 recording. Do not miss out however on David Measham's LSO version on Regis. The Tokyo Quartet's recording of the String Quartet is very closely recorded. It is movingly performed with sustained attention to mood even if dynamic contrast is compromised. After hearing the Adagio in its original string quartet garb we get the chance to hear it in familiar orchestral form with Bernstein drawing a touching charge from this music which has become a symbol of a serene yet searing melancholy.
This disc holds an old friend in the shape of the Violin Concerto from Stern and Bernstein. I heard another historic version recently - the one on Pristine from Koussevitsky and Ruth Posselt. It lacked heart and let many of Barber's most poignant ideas go for little or for far less than they are worth. Typical is the way the jagged trumpet fanfares in the Andante pass by without due emphasis by Koussevitsky. They have a real tragic jolt in the Stern version.
Schippers’ 1965 Essay No. 1 sounds really handsome. In fact throughout this series the often flawed LP sound some of us may remember from CBS and SBRG days has been largely transformed into something more agreeable, fuller and natural. Medea's Dance of Vengeance from The Cave of the Heart is superb. This is classic being symphonically and emotionally weighty. It's one of the highlights of a very fine collection. Schippers superbly shapes the extravagant brass climax at 3:48 and 7:56 onwards. Hearing this I lament that Schippers was not set loose on the Souvenirs ballet suite which has a similarly tense and saturated climax in the Tango.
Horowitz's possessed recording of the Piano Sonata has never sounded as good. The hiss has been tamed without palpable damage to the treble.
Knoxville is one of the greatest musical works to emerge from the USA. It really hit home for me when I heard the then rare Eleanor Steber recording broadcast which was by the BBC circa 1981. This is now much more easily attainable but the strings sound more shrill than ever. I still rate highly the Australian Molly McGurk on Regis - originally on Unicorn licensed from the ABC. The most affecting of all is that from Dawn Upshaw on Nonesuch. Leontyne Price and that doughty Barber champion Schippers also make a superb fist of it with reserves of meaning found by Price in the words. She handles the great moving apex of the child's musing in the backyard with a rare power to touch. Her breath control when fining away to pianissimo is glorious, glorious, glorious. The notes are produced with miraculous steadiness. Price's challenge is to keep that blowsy operatic flamboyance and heaviness at bay. This she does wonderfully well. Schippers keeps the vulnerable orchestral score under control. This was made in 1968. Fifteen years before that Price and Barber were recorded - with a high level of hiss - at the Library of Congress in the moving Hermit Songs op. 29. The most instantly affecting and witty of these is The Monk and His Cat. Let's leave the hiss behind with Horne and Katz's galloping and brusque I hear an army to words by James Joyce. Back to Price - this time with David Garvey - for Nocturne. There’s something of Dover Beach here. Horne sings Sure On This Shining Night to words by James Agee, the same poet who graced Barber's Knoxville.
Back to full orchestra with Frederica Von Stade's slow melancholy Must the winter come so soon from the opera Vanessa to words by Menotti. The whole work is now well served by recordings from RCA, Naxos and Chandos. It’s from a concert performance and comes complete with applause.
From the same Leontyne Price LP we get two extracts from the opera Antony and Cleopatra. It really should be recorded afresh. I am aware of the New World set but it seems to have limited retail circulation. The two extracts given by Price and Schippers give us an exciting insight into what this derided opera could do if only it were allowed its wingspan and space. The nonsense surrounding the premiere can now be relegated to irrelevance and collateral interest. The music explodes with all the composer's old orgasmic powers. He proves an eloquent Prospero shaken by passions once ancient and now having youthful life. Give Me some music and Give me my robe. If Walton's similar Troilus and Cressida was similarly out of its time and can now be received and recorded then why not this opera also. Chandos, are you listening? Nearly 20 minutes of music in these two extracts is full of instrumental detailing and eruptive accelerant. It was audacious of Barber to bring out such a work in the late 1960s. Price is in spectacular yet humane voice throughout and Schippers knows how to drawn the finest dynamic gradations from the NPO.
We end with what is the third version of the Adagio on this set. There's the String Quartet from the Tokyo, Bernstein's NYPO and finally the so-called Agnus Dei with Richard Marlow directing the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge. From them he draws a white purity and altitude similar to the Allegri Misere. If I have the same misgivings as John Quinn over it being done a cappella this is the finest version I have heard.
The School for Scandal, overture for orchestra, Op. 5 7:36
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
Dover Beach, for baritone and string quartet, Op. 3 7:52
Samuel Barber (Baritone) Curtis String Quartet
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 21:39
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
String Quartet in B major, Op. 11 18:31
Tokyo String Quartet
Adagio for strings (or string quartet; arr. from 2nd mvt. of String Quartet), Op. 11 9:54
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
Violin Concerto, Op. 14 22:36
Isaac Stern (Violin), New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
Second Essay, for orchestra, Op. 17 10:45
New York Philharmonic/Thomas Schippers
Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (from "Medea"), Op. 23a 12:36
New York Philharmonic/Thomas Schippers
Sonata for piano, Op. 26 18:33
Vladimir Horowitz (Piano)
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for high voice and orchestra Op. 24 16:23
Leontyne Price (Soprano), New Philharmonia Orchestra Thomas Schippers
Hermit Songs, for voice & piano, Op. 29 16:22
Leontyne Price (Soprano), Samuel Barber (Piano)
I Hear an Army, song for voice & piano, Op. 10/3 2:28
Marilyn Horne (Mezzo), Martin Katz (Piano)
Nocturne, song for voice & piano Op. 13/4 3:28
David Garvey (Piano), Leontyne Price (Soprano))
Sure on this shining night, song for voice & piano Op. 13/3 2:38
Marilyn Horne (Mezzo), Martin Katz (Piano)
Vanessa, opera, Op. 32 - (Must the Winter Come So Soon?) 3:06
Frederica Von Stade (Mezzo), Members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Steven Blier (Piano)
Antony and Cleopatra, opera, Op. 40 - (Give Me Some Music) 8:59 (Give Me My Robe) 9:22
Performers: Leontyne Price (Soprano), New Philharmonia Orchestra (Orchestra)Thomas Schippers
Agnus Dei, for chorus (arr. from 2nd mvt. of String Quartet), Op. 11
Trinity College Choir, Cambridge (Choir, Chorus)