Samuel BARBER (1910–1981)
Koussevitsky Conducts Barber
Violin Concerto Op. 14 (1939-40; revised 1948) [24:32]
rec. live, 7 January 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston (world première of revised version)
Commando March (1943) [3:48]
rec. broadcast, 12 February 1944, Hunter College, New York
Symphony No. 2 Op. 19 (original version, 1943-44) (“Dedicated to the Army Air Forces”) [27:13]
rec. live, broadcast, 4 March 1944, Symphony Hall, Boston (world première)
Ruth Posselt (violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitsky

Barber was associated with many eminent conductors in his career, especially Toscanini and Bernstein. But Koussevitzky is not one who may immediately come to mind. Thanks to Mark Obert-Thorn we can sample that collaboration as well as Mr. Obert-Thorn's mastery in bringing back long lost performances.

The Violin Concerto is so famous as to require little comment musically. More unusual is the provenance of the recording that we hear on this disk. The soloist, Ruth Posselt (wife of Richard Burgin, the BSO concertmaster) and the BSO performed this at a live concert which was not meant for broadcast. This recording was secretly recorded with a microphone in a ventilator grate above the orchestra - one of several so recorded in the 1948-49 season. The sound was relayed by telephone line and put onto an acetate disk at a local studio. Given these factors, it is amazing how full the sound is. Ruth Posselt provides a more meditative performance of the piece than we are used to today, especially in the first movement. Koussevitzky’s’ control of the orchestra is impressive, even by his standards. The combination of soloist and orchestra in the second movement is equally strong and Ms. Posselt winds up the movement magnificently. The contrast between the piece’s first two movements and the presto in moto pepetuo finale has often been commented on; to the detriment of the latter. It has never been less evident than in this performance with the conductor proceeding at an almost barbaric pace and style, wiping out any ideas as to inappropriateness.

The Commando March was the first of the pieces Barber wrote while serving in the U.S. Army Air Force. While not Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or Ireland’s Epic March it is not totally unimpressive. Here we have the orchestral version made at Koussevitzky’s request and the conductor makes the most of the contrasting humorous and serious sections.

The Second Symphony has had a checkered career. In three movements, the original version (1944) is recorded here, with a specially created electronic instrument to be used in the second movement. Later the composer revised the symphony and removed the electronic instrument, recording this version himself in 1950. Still later he destroyed all copies of the score, only retaining the slow movement, which was published separately as Night Flight. Eventually the parts for the other movements were found and the symphony has been played and recorded in toto. As said, what we have here is the original version in its world premiere and Mr. Obert-Thorn is again to be thanked for making it available, although there is a little less sonically for him to work with here than in the other two pieces.

In the Symphony’s first movement Koussevitzky gets a lot more motor energy out of the first subject than I have heard in any other performance or recording. His reading of the second subject is breathtakingly beautiful. The longueurs that I have always found in the development are still here but the conductor gets through them as quickly as possible. The second movement is also beautifully done, although the radio beam adds little. In the last movement Koussevitzky seems to lose interest a little, which is understandable as this is the least interesting of the three movements. But the final moments are very striking.

Obviously, more modern recordings of these works exist, with many of the Violin Concerto and Commando March (see review) and one or two of the Symphony (see review). But any fan of Barber, Koussevitzky, the BSO or just American performance practice in the 1940s will find this disk essential. Again, we must thank Mark Obert-Thorn and Pristine Records for bringing it to us.

William Kreindler

Long-lost recordings, restored to circulation for the Barber centennial. Of interest to all fans of the composer. … see Full Review

… and Rob Barnett’s review:-

These three works comprise the complete recorded repertoire of Samuel Barber as conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.

This is a very important disc for Barber enthusiasts and scholars. It charts the Boston/Koussevitsky premieres during and shortly after the Second World War when USAAF Corporal Barber’s star was at its zenith. These are historic recordings and stress and strain have taken their customary toll. They are vivid documents every one and made more so by Donald Lowe’s suave and unaffectedly intelligent introduction for the rather ordinary March – still, intriguing to have complete with its sometimes queasy braggartry.

The Concerto was recorded surreptitiously but sounds no worse than the other recordings taken from actual broadcasts. We know Ruth Posselt as the wife of associate Boston conductor Richard Burgin and also because part of her recorded legacy including a 1962 version of the Barber concerto appears on a 3 CD West Hill Archives set reviewed here. Her 1949 reading with Koussevitsky is hothouse stuff of which my criticism is that the conductor lets the tragic fanfares of the slow movement go for nothing at a perfunctorily rapid clip. Compare the result with Koussevitsky pupil Leonard Bernstein on Sony where in 1964 the young conductor allowed time for those climactic craggy brass statements to ring out with telling emphasis. Fascinating to hear Posselt all the same and who would have thought we could choose from two different Posselt recordings. As for the Second Symphony it is memorable because of its treatment at the composer’s hands. The middle movement included an electronic tone generator used to produce a signal for returning USAAF aircraft to home-in on to secure a safe return to base. Pristine tell us it can be heard at 5:34. Barber recorded a revised version in 1950 but in 1964 withdrew it and set about destroying all scores and parts. The only survivor - with adjustments - was the middle movement which was retitled Nightflight. However a set of parts survived in the UK and these were used to re-create the score which has since been further recorded by Marin Alsop and Andrew Schenck. Hearing the Second Symphony again is fascinating but the work though alive with imaginative episodes does not have the symphonic coherence of the First Symphony. For a modern recording do not forget the Alsop version on Naxos. Koussevitsky is rightly lauded for his championing of then modern music however he can be a little driven and even antiseptic as I have found in his various Sibelius recordings. That tendency applies here as well though the effects are less noticeable when the material is already super-romantic.

Looking further afield now. Freed from the critical brouhaha around the premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra I keep hoping that the opera will be freshly recorded. Inevitably this is likely to be from a concert performance. That’s all to the good. It’s a wonderful superheated romantic piece in Barber’s highest flown style. There is in fact a 2 CD recording on New World but that seems to have limited circulation. Some five plus years ago Naxos and Chandos issued fresh recordings of Barber’s Vanessa. Antony and Cleopatra is even more deserving.

Returning to the present Pristine disc: claims have been laid for this presenting previously-unissued world première recordings. In fact this version of the Second Symphony came out in 1989 on AS Disc AS 563 alongside the Koussevitsky-Boston Roy Harris Sixth Symphony. I did wonder whether AS had obtained all copyright clearances but in any event the disc certainly exists.

We owe it to the generosity of Langdon F. Lombard who provided the source materials from his own collection and to the wizardry of Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn that these recordings sound as good as they do. However do not expect them to be perfect. A low level brush and bristle forms an underpinning for these now sixty-plus year old documents of a bygone age. They speak to the listener vigorously enough through unsubtly direct sound but be aware.

Rob Barnett
A very important and fascinating disc for Barber enthusiasts … see Full Review