, November 2010
This is a very valuable, and most welcome, set, and in the composer’s centenary year it’s a timely reminder of the variety and integrity of Barber’s music and of these fine performances. The disks have been well planned, allowing for a mixture of the well known and less so to sit side by side.
The Serenade for Strings is Barber’s opus 1—it was preceded by a few songs and a Violin Sonata, of which only one movement appears to still exist—and it’s a delight from start to finish. It may recall, for some, Elgar’s Serenade, or perhaps Holst, and it has a quaintly English feel to parts of it, but it is essentially Barber’s own work and one can feel a new talent emerging. By the time he wrote his first score for full orchestra, his style was fully formed—no mean achievement in so short a time. Despite taking its title from Sheridan’s comedy, The School for Scandal Overture is rumoured to be about the Curtis Institute, where Barber studied. If that is so, then it’s good to know that he had as good a time as a student as I did! I learned this work, and the 1st Essay, from an old Mercury LP by the Eastman Rochester Orchestra, under Howard Hanson, (no longer available) and those performances had a real bite to them—they are quite spiky, modernistic works in some ways—and they can take such an approach. Alsop doesn’t quite manage to get the power Hanson achieves but they are both very good in their own way. The Music for a Scene from Shelley is the first orchestral work of Barber’s which he heard in performance. There is a real nobility here, and it is an impressive score, which makes one wonder why it is almost unknown.
Barber’s First Symphony was written during his stay in Europe; it’s a short piece which telescopes the four movements of a conventional Symphony into one span. The work was revised and this version was premièred, and subsequently recorded, by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. Alsop’s performance is full of energy and drama…
Adagio for Strings needs no introduction, except to say that it has been hijacked by the lamentation brigade who have it wheeled out for any event which requires national mourning. Alsop will have none of this in her interpretation and gives a straightforward reading which allows the music to proceed easily and without descending into misery, which it seems to, too often, these days.
The Violin Concerto is given a truly technicolor reading by James Buswell. His full romantic playing admirably suits the first two movements of the work and he lets his hair down for the mad dash which is the finale. Buswell is even more red-blooded than Isaac Stern in his recording…
The Second Essay was written in wartime, and has a rather anguished tone. It contains bold strokes of orchestral colour and the merest flashes of melodic material which are worked out in a fugue; this constitutes the middle section. The coda ends with a climax of huge proportions which is both resplendent and satisfying. The Commando March was written for large concert band and later scored for orchestra, which is the version heard here. It’s a brief, but satisfying side-light on Barber’s wartime career. As is the Second Symphony, which was commissioned on Barber’s conscription into the USAAF. It’s a big work, in three movements and was revised in 1947. However, in 1964 Barber expressed dissatisfaction with the piece and subsequently tried to destroy all copies of it, including the manuscript. Quite how intent he was in this mission must be in question for, by 1967, there would have been more than sufficient copies of the score in private hands not to mention the fact that he had recorded the piece in London in 1951 (…soon available on Naxos 8.111358)! Certainly it doesn’t have the immediacy of the First Symphony but it is a strongly argued work, with much fine music to commend it. This performance should win more admirers for this fascinating work, and, without a doubt, it is the best version currently available on disk.
With the Capricorn Concerto we enter a time when Barber’s music showed the marked influence of Stravinsky’s neo–classical works. It’s a kind of modern Brandenburg Concerto—indeed, it is scored for the same forces as the second of those works—and it’s a bright and breezy concoction, belying the fact that it was written in wartime. It couldn’t provide a bigger contrast to the Second Symphony if it were dodecaphonic. The three soloists are splendid, giving forthright performances and they receive admirable support from the strings of the orchestra.
The Cello Concerto is a big work, with bitter sweet lyricism and a nostalgic feel. But the cello is the one instrument which can evoke nostalgia better than any other, and Wendy Warner proves to be a winsome soloist, almost underplaying the piece and bringing to her interpretation a nobility and strength which holds the melancholy at bay. The ballet Cave of the Heart was written for the Martha Graham company shortly after the Cello Concerto. Scored for Graham’s usual small ensemble—the Appalachian Spring group—Barber almost immediately reworked part of the score for orchestra, changing the name to that of the main character, and that is what we have here. The seven movements present some of the most austere music Barber ever composed, it’s dark and demanding, not an easy listen but most satisfying. Later still, he took the music and created the concert work Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance for a very large orchestra. This has achieved a hold in the repertoire and rightly so, for it is a magnificent piece; vivid and vital. Alsop directs a particularly trenchant performance.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is amongst Barber’s most endearing pieces. It’s a perfect depiction of childhood and the things which are important to a child—home, parents, the comings and goings in the street. The section he chose from James Agee’s autobiography allowed Barber to create a nostalgic scene, possibly recalling his own childhood, and he filled the piece with some of his most sumptuous melodic material. This is a gorgeous work, and one heard too seldom in the concert hall. Karina Gauvin is a good soloist, but insists on using vibrato far too often.
Alsop directs a perfect performance of the jazzy ballet suite Souvenirs, which has the right feel to it, and she never tries to make more of the little dances than is in the music. Vanessa was Barber’s first opera, premiered at the Met, and it won the Pulitzer Prize, being hailed as the first American grand opera. The Intermezzo is a bittersweet piece of melancholy, and it’s slight and charming. A Hand of Bridge is a mini opera to a libretto by Menotti, in which two couples play bridge and indulge in their private reveries. It’s great fun, and with a naughty tinge of jazz it’s very attractive and approachable.
Toccata Festiva, is a joyful, not to say joyous, piece, written to inaugurate a new pipe organ in Philadelphia. In effect a Concerto movement it incorporates a cadenza and some really exciting interplay between soloist and orchestra. One wishes for a full-length Concerto, so satisfying is the writing. Thomas Trotter and Alsop are certainly the equal of the creators and it’s a thrilling experience.
Written between the high spirits of the Toccata Festiva and the seriousness of the Piano Concerto, Die natali is an odd, not to say backward-looking, work, taking various well known Christmas Carols as the basis for a set of free variations. As a composition, I feel that the composer wasn’t really involved with his material and he was simply going through the compositional motions. This is a very persuasive performance and certainly makes a better case for the piece…
After flirting with 12 note technique in the Piano Sonata of 1947, the Piano Concerto was Barber’s real entry into “modernism”. Or, at least, an idiom of more modern expression, built from his earlier late-romantic, and neo–Stravinskian styles. Commissioned by the music publisher G Schirmer, for the centenary of its founding, the work was premièred during the opening festivities of Philharmonic Hall, now Avery Fisher Hall, in the Lincoln Center. It’s a true virtuoso work, with brilliant writing both for soloist and orchestra.
Mutations from Bach is a simple four-fold statement of the plainsong Christ, thou lamb of God, for a brass group with timpani—an unpretentious and gallant piece. Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, the title is from Joyce, is an impressionistic scene, possibly of times gone by, a ghost town, or perhaps the faded memories of things past.
Thirty-six years after the Second Essay, a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra allowed Barber to return to his invented form and create a one movement discussion. His last completed orchestral work, it isn’t as tightly knit as the first two works with the same title and, indeed, there is a strange whiff of nostalgic Hollywood in the mix. There is a superbly built climax, which brings the work to a massive conclusion. Alsop really gets to the heart of the music here and gives a superbly thought out performance which makes the various sections hang together well, for this work is freer in form than its predecessors.
At the very end of his life, Barber was writing an Oboe Concerto for Harold Gomberg, a member of the New York Philharmonic. As it was, he didn’t quite finish this delicate Canzonetta, and the scoring was completed by his only pupil, Charles Turner. Stéphane Rancourt is a most eloquent soloist.
Despite my one or two alternative preferences, this is a very fine set, and Naxos is to be praised for bringing together this music, some of which is seldom, if ever, heard. Each CD has its own box and booklet, and the whole is encased in a card slipcase. Nice presentation, excellent recordings and performances, in general, to match. I cannot imagine that there is anyone who does not respond to Barber’s brand of late-romanticism, but if there really are such people out there then I urge them to listen to these CDs and revel in the discovery. For those of us who are already fans, it’s a chance to meet some works new to us, and simply to enjoy a master composer at work. This will not disappoint.