Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Historical Recordings - 1935-1960
Full track-list at end of review
West Hill has certainly fulfilled its brief in this boxed set of 8 CDs plus a CD-ROM containing nearly a hundred pages of highly informative notes. The music derives in the main from concert broadcasts and some tough-to-trace early LPs. Given the composerís propensity occasionally to mull over and revise scores itís additionally beneficial that we hear first and then afterthoughts scattered throughout the set: the Violin Concerto is perhaps the most obvious place, but there are others.
There is a bewilderingly exciting list of soloist names, orchestras and conductors. There is also one performance that I had always hoped to hear but had never thought I would: Albert Spaldingís world premiere of the Violin Concerto. For me this is reason enough to get the box, though I appreciate others will require more evidence of the setís indispensability to Barber collectors. Given that everything here has been sonically superseded many times over that is inevitable, but this set contains such a rich variety and depth of material, that it would be a gung-ho Barberite who chose to ignore its content.
The first two CDs are largely given over to a live broadcast from the Met of Vanessa. Mitropoulos conducts an all-star cast in 1958, a fortnight after the world premiere. The commercial LP followed later and by then the work had been bedded down but this broadcast is generally fine though there is some station drop-out and other extraneous noises, so donít expect perfection. The cast is solid, expressive and impressive, albeit sometimes technically overstretched (Steber briefly in particular). The Medea Orchestral Suite, Op. 23, recorded by the composer in London for Decca in 1950, is followed by an exciting Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a (Mitropoulos, 1958, live).
The third disc opens with Overture to The School for Scandal with the Janssen Symphony under its founder, Victor Janssen. This is from a commercial disc and the composer took issue with Janssenís tempi, which are zippy. We then get two performances of the Symphony No.1, in the original version with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski and the revised with New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Bruno Walter. The opportunity to hear the work from 1938 and then 1944 proves far too good to forego, not least because both performances are so eloquent and convincing, albeit different. Rodzinskiís broadcast preserves the original Scherzo. Rodzinski, whose performance is intense and powerful, never recorded the work commercially but Walter did; his broadcast is richer, more dramatic and more imposing than his later LP version. Itís terrific in every respect and Barber admired it, quite rightly. Toscaniniís famous live 1938 Adagio is the premiere of this orchestral version. Finely chiselled, brisk and cumulatively intense, this classic inscription has been out before on CD, but it had to be here. The First Essay for Orchestra Op. 12 comes from the same Toscanini concert, whilst the second Essay comes from Walter six years later. Itís useful to have the Commando March directed by Koussevitzky in 1943; not much of a piece, itís true, but historically of value.
The fourth disc is a bonanza for lovers of the Symphony No.2. We have two versions plus an extensive extract of Barber rehearsing part of the work. The first version is represented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky in March 1944 (live), and the revision is with the New Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Barber (studio recording). The composer takes a more taut view of things than Koussevitzky: that much has been known, as the studio recording has been reissued several times already. But the revisions, which include the finaleís epilogue, certainly more than justify the placement of the Barber-conducted version in this box. The rehearsal sequence is with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where we find him courteous, polite, rather insistent, and even punctilious. He had taken lessons in conducting from Nikolai Malko and Barberís constant directions to the Boston Symphony regarding the musicís Ďchamberí quality are certainly illuminating. Current conductors might do well to note the implications of this with regard to the symphonyís textual clarity and Ďlightnessí. Avoid density!
Die Natali, Op. 37 is a charming, highly effective work, heard in a performance given the day after the 1960 premiere. Charles Munch directs the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The same conductor also directs the Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30 one of the composerís most impassioned works, and still one of his most underappreciated. In terms of technical and expressive matters, it ranks very highly. Maybe the title puts people off. It puts me off too, but one has to listen to the music and that tells a different story. The performance here from 1954 is stunning, Leontyne Price proving the first among equals.
This brings us to Spaldingís February 1941 Violin Concerto in Philadelphia with Ormandy. Unfortunately the sound is not great but perseverance reveals tremendous things. I always wondered how Spalding would deal with the tempi of the first two movements. He differentiates them nicely, not wallowing in the opening movement: Louis Kaufman started that trend. His portamenti are admirably devised and his passionately intense reading is pretty much all Iíd hoped it would be. What a shame he never recorded it in studio conditions. The next disc provides an opportunity to compare and contrast Spalding with Ruth Posseltís 1949 version of the revision with the Boston Symphony Orchestra directed by Serge Koussevitzky. The recording quality is clearer, the performance more restrained and classical, and the first two movements are already becoming less differentiated. Donít overlook her stereo 1962 performance with her husband Richard Burgin, also on West Hill. The Capricorn Concerto is not one of Barberís strongest pieces, but the Cello Concerto with the wonderful Zara Nelsova certainly is. Barber conducts this London-made performance, which youíll also find transferred elsewhere, notably in the Decca Nelsova box: five CDs and essential for cello lovers.
The seventh disc is given over to chamber and instrumental music. The Cello Sonata was written for Barberís Curtis friend, Orlando Cole, here in 1973 partnered by Vladimir Sokoloff ó apparently known to chums as Billy. The spoken introduction by Cole is a charmer ó he and the composer had premiered the work forty years earlier. Itís a powerful reading, the most recent in the box, and gaining from intimate awareness of the composerís intentions. The String Quartet, Op. 11 is performed in 1938 by the Curtis Quartet, of which group Cole was the cellist. The work underwent significant revision, though not the Adagio, so itís especially exciting to hear the Ďwhite hotí creation in its raw immediacy. Yes, the acoustic is boxy and unflattering, but the chance to hear it in this way, in a public performance given the day before the official premiere, is not to be spurned. Excursions is played in a 1950 studio recording by Rudolf Firkuönż who latches on to the Americana with seeming relish. Elite duo pianists Gold and Fizdale perform Souvenirs two years later: huge fun.
The final disc offers Dover Beach, in the 1935 78 set with Barber himself as baritone and his friends from the Curtis Quartet accompanying. Again, this is a fixture in the Barber Discography, and there is a great frisson in hearing his assured singing, and the emphases and phrasing subtleties he brings to bear. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 has a secure place in the hearts of most Barber admirers, which is a good thing as we can hear first Eileen Farrell in 1949, with Bernard Herrmann conducting the full orchestral version, then the revised version in 1958 with Eleanor Steber and piano accompaniment by Edwin Biltcliffe, and then finally the revised version again, this time with Leontyne Price with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Schippers. Barber wrote the work for Steber, and whilst I donít especially mind the piano accompaniment, maybe others will. All three are major achievements whichever edition or accompaniment you prefer. Jennie Tourel can also be heard in orchestrations of three songs in performances conducted by the composer, though the 1945 sonics are not great. We also hear a brief talk from Menotti, Barberís partner, not least about Brahms. Barber is heard in interview with James Fassett, taking mainly about Medea and Greece. His speaking voice is patrician.
Given the duplications, the survival condition of some of the recordings, and the bulky nature of this set, I am sure it will not appeal to all devotees of the composer, who will stick to the latest, most sonically easy-on-the-ear traversals. But for those seriously interested in the performance history, in the versions and revisions, and in the then contemporary electrical current in Barberís music, this is an indispensible box. Iíve already singled out the Violin Concerto but Iíd also cite the Second Symphony, Prayers of Kierkegaard, the String Quartet, and others to convince you of the historical and archival significance of this outstanding box.
Jonathan Woolf
For those seriously interested in Barber this is an indispensable box of historical and archival significance. Outstanding.
See also the review by Rob Barnett

Full track-list

CD 1 [78:16]
Vanessa Ė 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 Ė 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 Firkuänż (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
Edwin Biltcliffe (mezzo)
CBS Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Barber
Also includes interviews with Barber and Menotti and rehearsal footage of the Second Symphony (Barber conducting)