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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Historical Recordings - 1935-1960
This set is not available in the USA
Full track-List at end of review
[8 CDs + CD-ROM]

Experience Classicsonline

West Hill Radio Archives start on a high note by avoiding the portentous ‘Historic Recordings’ label and instead opt for the unduly modest ‘Historical Recordings’. Careful and deferential use of language leaves it to listeners to decide whether these recordings are more than merely old.

No one has done anything approaching this before. What we have here is an aural Barber encyclopedia. Like a generation that also included Britten and Copland, Barber lived in the era of mass-available recorded sound. He died within a year or so of the launch of the compact disc. These recordings span 1935-1960 ending broadly on the tipping point of the musical elite's abnegation of melody. The only other Barber project that even approaches this - indeed complements it - is the Naxos box of the complete orchestral works.

It's a stunning conspectus and an invaluable vista of performance practice and original versions as presented to the public during the composer's lifetime.

Naturally, everything is analogue. Live broadcast transcriptions nestle cheek by jowl with sound derived from 78s and early LPs dating from pre and post Pearl Harbour. Lani Spahr who made the transfers works wonders with everything.

We launch with the complete opera Vanessa - fierce, tragic and playful. It was recorded here, and very creditably too, from an evening at the Met. Every line is closely rendered with the voices favoured but only marginally. The CDs are amply tracked to allow quick and targeted navigation. Steber - well known for her classic Knoxville not recorded here - is flammable, vibrant and mercurial, changing mood on a sixpence. Must the winter come so soon (tr. 3) is so touchingly sung. This opera represents a goldfish bowl of the emotions – a searing extension to the world of A hand of bridge. The start of Act 3, rather like Under the willow tree from act II, inhabits the same luxurious world as the music for Barber’s suite Souvenirs heard here in animated mode from pianists Gold and Fizdale. The penultimate track At last I found you has a Puccinian potency. It reeks of an emotional entanglement that teeters on the verge of the disaster suggested by the brusque start of act IV scene 1. Some audience shuffling and noise - not much - can be heard at times. The original tape is in excellent condition. Vanessa has had modern recordings from Naxos and Chandos as well as the 1960s version from RCA but this is something quite distinctive.

It is a small step from the tortured emotions of Vanessa to Medea. Mitropoulos - also a doughty Straussian - could be expected to excel in Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. There is tenderness too, equal to that in the slow movement of the Violin Concerto. Note also the possessed yet rigorously controlled Dance of Vengeance.

Werner Janssens' Overture to The School for Scandal blitzes along like a hurricane at first. This represents superb delivery and is heard in a very clean transfer from commercial 78s.

Rodzinski's original version of the First Symphony is from Studio 8H and brings churning intensity to its brooding. Still, it manages playfulness in the Allegro molto (this becomes fierce in Walter's hands – tr. 7). There’s a warmly hushed sepia endearment to the oboe solo in the Andante Tranquillo which emerges yet more seraphic (almost Tallis) in the Walter recording (**) which we have also heard on Pearl. From Walter's Carnegie Hall to Toscanini's brisk Adagio. He does not milk it for drama nor dawdle while trawling for emotive effect. It is, in fact, rather dry-eyed. Toscanini's Essay No. 1 is telling for the same reason. He keeps giving the work a buzzingly Sibelian gravity. From four years later comes the Second Essay from Walter and the NYPSO. Again they're in the Carnegie Hall rather than studio 8H which was the stamping ground of Toscanini and Rodzinski. The sound in these live recordings can be a mite scrawny; it certainly is in Essay No. 2. These live events include applause. Commando March is jaunty rather than ruthless as you will have discovered if you heard the recent Pristine Barber-Koussevitsky disc.

The fourth CD encompasses the revised and original versions of the Second Symphony. The original has been out before in this version. Initially it was on a controversial and possibly unauthorised CD from AS Disc with Koussevitsky's Harris 6. The 4 March 1944 concert event is pretty clean-sounding with just the occasional steel-brush whiskering. Intrinsically the sound is good for the era - even lustrous. Compare this with the revised version issued by Decca and played by the NSO London with the composer. That was first issued as a Decca LP in 1951 and has surfaced on CD from Pearl. The applause here is pretty enthusiastic. The second movement became Nightflight first issued in the 1970s on a Unicorn LP conducted by the immensely talented David Measham and then reissued by Regis. The sound, oddly enough, is not as clean as that for the 1944 Boston concert. Lastly comes approaching 28 minutes of the composer rehearsing the BSO in April 1951 for a June broadcast. The composer's gentlemanly precision is a delight to hear as is the gentle humour and the unoppressive insistence he brings to bear when he needs to make changes. His hisses and rapturous vocalising slip smoothly into instruction and give a vivid picture of a charming yet determined composer.

CD 5 begins with the unassuming orchestral carol sequence Die Natali from Boston which ends in a self-effacing Finzian gleam. It’s a prayer rather than a paean. Speaking of prayers, we move to the 1954 Prayers of Kierkegaard. The Boston Cecilian Society Choir sing pianissimo before luminous violins and deeper music usher in jangling and jagged violence. The second section, the earnest Lord Jesus Christ who suffered all life long is sung by Leontyne Price. After the passion and even anger of the third section we come to the dynamic and flighted celebratory Father in heaven hold not our sins against us. Raging fanfares and uproar blast us along and the choir explore the catastrophic moods of what amounts to a Dies Irae. This resolves into an inward cherubic hymn and to serene resolution on a held note.

In 1941 Albert Spalding played the Violin Concerto in its original version with the Philadelphia and Ormandy. If Ruth Posselt is so quick that we skate over the emotional waymarkers Spalding is of a less impassive school. He is a rapturous Campoli or Stern or Oistrakh to Posselt’s Gidon Kremer. The Spalding recording suffers from ‘shushing’ surface noise. The orchestral violins sound like a heavenly choir more often than not. Enthusiastic applause is the reward. It’s a remarkable performance. The Posselt is very good indeed and the sound quality is eminently satisfying but Spalding and Ormandy really give this work the lime-light, the star-glimmer and the angel-dust treatment all rolled together.

At the other extreme we have the neo-classical litheness of line and material of the Capricorn Concerto. It sounds exceptionally well for 1945 and features invaluable playing from veteran Julius Baker - glorious Bernstein in the Nielsen flute Concerto. He is joined by Miller - rather good in the RVW Oboe Concerto on Pristine - and Harry Freistadt, trumpet.

The Cello Concerto is from the flipside of the same Decca LP that carries the Second Symphony. The sound is good, having been taken down in the Kingsway Hall. The damage that compromised the symphony is absent.

The most recent recording in the box is from 1973: the Cello Sonata. It sounds gloriously present and clean - beaming yet oaken and soulfully sincere. It is greeted politely by the audience rather than with any special sustained rapture. It was the "wrong" era for the music. Back to the Curtis and the college's self-named quartet with cellist Orlando Cole serving as one of the four people in the ensemble. The sound, though immediate enough, suffers from a sort of cyclical hollowness.

In 1950 Firkusny recorded the four movement Excursions. This represents a feting of brilliance, with bluesy tobacco-wreathed nostalgia, innocently fluttering smiles and an uproarious fast-bursting barn-dance to close.

The Gold and Fizdale duo take one of my favourite Barber works for an outing. There's the urbane Tempo di waltz which manages to be light of step and yet suggest darker undercurrents. There’s a gawky angular and dissonant Schottisch, a grave and melancholy Adagio, a speed-merchant Two-Step, the eruptive Hesitation Tango (which explodes into a conflagration in the orchestral version but here holds onto its hat) and the barked-out celerity of the Galop. That opulent and affluent age is the same one so vividly described by Jed Rubenstein in his unmissable New York detective novels.

The last audio disc launches with Dover Beach sung in 1935 by the composer with the Curtis Quartet with Orlando Cole as cellist. This is the same man who plays the Cello Sonata and the string quartet on CD7. Barber's Dover Beach would be instantly captivating to those who love their Butterworth, RVW and Gurney though predictably Barber is more unrelentingly cloud-hung and moodily overcast.

Knoxville - Summer of 1915 is heard in the original version from a 1949 CBS broadcast with Herrmann and Farrell. Farrell is exemplary, keeping her operatic credentials tacit and allowing the child to speak without adult clutter. When she unleashes at the end the effect is devastating - deeply affecting. The sound is really vivid and the playing seethes with character. This was the work's first broadcast performance. Biltcliffe and Steber, the latter sounding very fine indeed, are magnificently recorded in 1958 courtesy of VAI. Leontyne Price - prominent in the sound-stage - is heard live in 1959 with Schippers who is best known for his operatic acumen. The NYPO play with sweet restraint. The violins sound ripe and not at all shrill. Price is just magnificent - such silky smoothness in alt!

Next comes Jennie Tourel in three songs with orchestra. Sure on this shining night is mournful rather than anything else. I wonder how many other songs Barber orchestrated. Is there a collection ready to be made to vie with Strauss as these do. Nocturne is sultry and somnolent. Then, to break the mood, comes I hear an army - a call to arms from an operatic belvedere.

Menotti was Barber’s lifelong companion and librettist for Vanessa. He is heard in interview in 1980 speaking of how he and Barber first met and how Barber sang lieder by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann. There is also a fascinating interview with Barber himself.

The liner-notes in English are by Barbara B Heyman and in French by Pierre Brevignon.

This is a staggering and often compelling survey of Barber performance practice and original versions as presented to the public during the composer's lifetime.

Rob Barnett

** Note
I am very grateful for a note from a visitor (who asks to remain anonynmous) to the site who tells me that the Bruno Walter Barber Symphony #1 is not in fact the same recorded performance as the commercial CBS recording, which has been reissued by Pearl & Sony. The performance on the WHRA set is a live performance, never before issued anywhere. If you compare it to the commercial recording, you will find it somewhat different, perhaps with more passion and thrust.

Full Track-List

CD 1 [78:16]
Vanessa – Acts 1-3
rec. live, 1 February 1958
Eleanor Steber (Vanessa)/Rosalind Elias (Erika)/Nicolai Gedda (Anatol)/Giorgio Tozzi (The Doctor)/Regina Resnik (The Old Baroness)/George Cehanovsky (Nicholas)/Robert Nagy (Footman)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera House/Dimitri Mitropoulos

CD 2 [78:27]
Vanessa – Act 4
Medea Orchestral Suite, Op. 23
rec. 12 December 1950
New Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Barber
Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a
rec. live, 16 March 1958
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Mitropoulos

CD 3 [78:35]
Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5
rec. 11 March 1942
Janssen Symphony/ Victor Janssen
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9
Original version; rec. live, 2 April 1938
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Artur Rodzinski
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9
Revised version; rec. 12 March 1944
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
rec. live, 5 November 1938
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
First Essay for Orchestra Op. 12
rec. live, 5 November 1938
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17
rec. live, 16 April 1942
New Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Commando March
rec. live, 30 October 1943
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky

CD 4 [79:37]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 19
Original version; rec. live, 4 March 1944
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Symphony No. 2, Op. 19
Revised version; rec. 13 December 1950
New Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Barber
Symphony No. 2, Op. 19
Composer rehearsing Boston Symphony Orchestra

CD 5 [61:12]
Die Natali, Op. 37
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. live, 23 December 1960
Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. live, 3 December 1954
Violin Concerto, Op. 14
rec. 7 February 1941
Albert Spalding (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy

CD 6 [66:46]
Violin Concerto, Op. 14
Revised version; rec. 7 January 1949
Ruth Posselt (violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Capricorn Concerto
rec. live, 2 May 1945
Harry Freistadt / Julius Baker / Mitch Miller / CBS Symphony members / composer
Cello Concerto, Op. 22
rec. 11 December 1950
Zara Nelsova (cello)
New Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Barber

CD 7 [69:47]
Cello Sonata in C minor, Op. 6
rec. live, 28 January 1973
Orlando Cole (cello)/Vladimir 'Billy' Sokoloff (piano)
String Quartet, Op. 11
rec. live, 14 March 1938
Curtis Quartet
Excursions Op. 20
rec. 17 November 1950
Rudolf FirkuŠný (piano)
Souvenirs, Op. 28
rec. 15 August 1952
Gold and Fizdale Duo

CD 8
Dover Beach, Op. 3
rec. 13 May 1935
Samuel Barber (baritone)
Curtis String Quartet
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24
rec. live 19 June 1949
Eileen Farrell (soprano)
CBS Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Herrmann
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Revised version; rec. live, October 1958
Eleanor Steber (soprano)
Edwin Biltcliffe
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Revised version; rec. live, 15 November 1959
Leontyne Price (soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
Sure, on this shining night, Op. 13 No. 3
Four Songs, Op. 13/No. 4 (Nocturne)
I hear an army Op. 10 No. 3
rec. live, 2 May 1945
Jennie Tourel (mezzo)
CBS Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Barber
Also includes interviews with Barber and Menotti and rehearsal footage of the Second Symphony (Barber conducting)



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