About this Recording
8.111358 - BARBER, S.: Symphony No. 2 / Cello Concerto / Medea Suite (Barber Conducts Barber) (1950)

Barber conducts Barber
Symphony No. 2 • Cello Concerto • Medea – Ballet Suite


There was a time when Samuel Barber’s music was reviled in some quarters for not being ‘modern’ or progressive enough; his brand of romanticism and nostalgia allied to lyrical and passionate expression, dressed in colourful and descriptive orchestration, although popular with audiences, was not necessarily the thing to win over the cognoscenti, save those who were open-minded and open-hearted as well as receptive to a genuinely communicative composer. However, in terms of recognition, Barber’s Adagio for Strings stands enormously high in its universal significance and appeal, and alone has maintained his name; music that began as the slow movement of his only string quartet (1936) and then which took a life of its own as a solemn and deeply beautiful orchestral work (1938)—when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945 American radio stations broadcast Barber’s Adagio for Strings as a tribute—to be followed by the composer’s own arrangement of it as an a cappella piece, setting the text of the Agnus Dei (1967). Barber did not record Adagio for Strings (music featured in films such as Platoon and The Elephant Man), although he did document his 1931 piece Dover Beach, a setting for baritone and string quartet of the poem by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), which attracted Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau into the recording studio; Barber’s recording dates from 1935—he had a fine and trained voice. He was also an accomplished pianist. In 1953 he first performed and recorded his Hermit Songs with soprano Leontyne Price. On this current release we hear his endeavour as a conductor in three of his works recorded in London in 1950.

Samuel Osborne Barber II (1910–1981) left us a body of richly expressed and finely crafted music, including two full-scale operas, Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra, concertos for violin, for cello and for piano (the last for John Browning, who recorded it twice, first with George Szell conducting and then with Leonard Slatkin), two symphonies (or one!), numerous orchestral pieces, a Piano Sonata for Vladimir Horowitz, choral works, and many much-admired songs. He also won awards including two Pulitzer Prizes, one for Vanessa, the other for the Piano Concerto. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Barber composed his first piece at the age of seven. He entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the age of fourteen to study singing, the piano, and composition. If Barber cannot be regarded as a musical innovator in terms of progressiveness, he did find his own compositional style early on—and that could indeed be counted as an innovation on its own terms (a composer finding himself), a recognisably American articulation that is distinctive and also distinct from his illustrious contemporaries such as Aaron Copland (1900–1990) and William Schuman (1910–1992).

On this Naxos release we have the opportunity to hear three major orchestral works of Barber conducted by the composer, the results of three consecutive days of sessions (one day per work) in London’s Kingsway Hall, which sported a splendid acoustic that was lost to record companies in the mid-1980s—the building, located in the Holborn area, is now a luxury hotel. The New Symphony Orchestra of London was Decca’s adhoc recording ensemble (but not at the sacrifice of using either the London Philharmonic or London Symphony Orchestras), a mix of musicians from London’s freelancers and those who were members of the city’s permanent symphony orchestras.

Although Barber’s conducting activities seem to have been limited in terms of opportunities (or maybe out of choice), he learnt from a master, namely Fritz Reiner (1888–1963), music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and then, famously, of the Chicago Symphony from 1953, and it is difficult to imagine that if Barber had been a non-starter in this rôle that he would not very quickly have been outside of the demanding Reiner’s room. That said, premières of Barber’s orchestral music tended to be directed by the most distinguished contemporary conductors, including Toscanini (Essay for Orchestra and Adagio for Strings), Bruno Walter (Symphony No. 1, revised, and Essay No. 2), Eugene Ormandy (Violin Concerto, with Albert Spalding as the soloist), Zubin Mehta (Essay No. 3), Artur Rodzinski (Symphony No. 1, American and Salzburg Festival premières of the original version), Dmitri Mitropoulos (Vanessa) and Thomas Schippers (Antony and Cleopatra)—all music by a virtuoso composer for virtuoso performers (and from the off, too—one has only to listen to the brilliant Overture to The School for Scandal, dated 1931, a graduation piece, to relish Barber’s youthful yet already-mature and personal mastery of melody, counterpoint, rhythm and orchestration, and his depth of field in each).

Of the three works recorded here, Symphony No. 2 is something of a problem child in Barber’s catalogue. It was composed in 1944, revised in 1947, and then in 1964—several years following this recording that the composer made in 1950—Barber decided to suppress the work, requesting that scores and parts be destroyed; what Barber did not bank on was that a set of parts would escape the cull and be found in a warehouse in England a few years after his death. At least two recordings of Barber’s Second Symphony have been made subsequently—conducted respectively by Andrew Schenck and Neeme Järvi—and the occasional concert performance has also taken place. Whether one agrees with Barber that this is music that should not now be played (and his urge to abandon it was no rash decision)—and he thought highly enough of the dark, lonely and rather elegiac slow movement to publish it separately as Night Flight, Op. 19a—the moral dilemma is either to respect the composer and ignore the symphony’s existence or to have the guilty pleasure of enjoying music that may not be top-drawer Barber (the otherwise vivid outer movements lack melodic individuality at times as well as structural finesse) but which include plenty of good and ear-catching ideas; in any case, despite his wish for the withdrawal of scores and parts, the composer cannot have forgotten that his own recording existed and had its own permanence.

Barber’s Second Symphony is a very intense work, atmospheric (image-creating), jagged, strongly lyrical and purposeful, and rhythmically deft, initially a wartime piece written by someone drafted into the American Air Force and then requested to compose a symphony inspired by pilots, their experiences of flying finding an outlet within the score’s three movements. If Barber later felt that the extra-musical aspects of the symphony caused him to ‘say too much’ then that is a significant aspect of his personality, for although not without an extrovert side, Barber is at his most revealing when innermost feelings are musically expressed with discretion and economy. Not that this stopped Barber writing for the stage—including those two grand operas—for his Medea score, originally choreographed by Martha Graham as The Serpent Heart (1946) and then revised as Cave of the Heart (1947), lacks nothing in dramatic impulses and vibrant characterisation, the seven-movement concert suite (1948, first conducted by Ormandy) being concise in design and pithy in gesture: Medea, a woman scorned, revengeful of her betraying husband Jason, otherwise a hero, who leaves Medea for a younger woman. Barber later re-fashioned some of the Medea music to create an orchestral showpiece, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, which was unleashed in 1956 under Mitropoulos.

Barber’s Cello Concerto was first heard in April 1946, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, the soloist being the Georgia-born Raya Garbousova (1909–1997) for whom the work was written. Barber’s Cello Concerto is a compact yet outgoing piece, a delicious combination of singing phrases and agile rhythms, and not without rumination in the rather sad central Andante, Barber opting for the traditional three-movement concerto-design (as he also did for his concertos for piano and for violin). Barber invited Garbousova to his home to discuss the work and to listen to her playing; yet for all that her personality is imbued into the concerto, and she continued to play it, it was to another long-lived lady cellist—Zara Nelsova (1918–2002)—that the honour of making the first recording fell. Nelsova (born Sarah Nelson in Winnipeg to parents of Russian descent) studied for for a time in London and while living there was heard by conductor John Barbirolli (himself a cellist) who introduced Nelsova to Pablo Casals who gave her extra lessons. In 1932 the fourteen-year-old Nelsova played with the London Symphony Orchestra and Malcolm Sargent. During the war-years Nelsova was principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and played in a string quartet before going solo, a cellist who would be no stranger to the new music of her time—including works by Bloch, Hindemith and Shostakovich—and, later, the concerto by Hugh Wood (a BBC Proms première in 1969), and, of course, the concerto by Samuel Barber (the work only four years old at the time of this recording), its many technical difficulties here made light of to reveal an expressive, heartfelt, leaping and sometimes-turbulent work (the finale’s marking of ‘trattenuto’, a direction that does not appear in every annotation of this work, means ‘held back’). Nelsova, who died in New York, (Garbousova passed away in Illinois) and the composer are unified in a superb performance of music that one imagines the self-critical Barber was particularly pleased with. When heard in this recording, the first made of this composer-conducted threesome, one is convinced that he had every reason to be.

Colin Anderson

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