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Gramophone, July 2010

The Capricorn Concerto is a curiosity as Barber revisits Stravinskian neo-classicism—a rare example of Neo-classicism?



Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, July 2010

Alsop has a special sympathy for Barber and—thanks to her—all his orchestral music is now available at Naxos prices. If I had to choose only one of her discs it might be the last of the set containing the Capricorn Concerto, the sparklingly witty nine-minute mini-opera A Hand of Bridge and the Canzonetta for oboe and strings. This was Barber’s last work, planned as part of an oboe concerto, but it never got beyond a single movement. Even this had to be scored by Barber’s friend and only pupil Charles Turner. It’s shot through the composer’s unique brand of melancholy—a link with the funereal uses of the Adagio—and again reveals his special kinship with the oboe…that CD also includes the Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, the rarely heard late orchestral piece with a title taken out of James Joyce’s avant-garde novel Finnegans Wake. James Jolly, in Tune Surfing, provides a choice of Barber downloads but he also rightly says: “After a period when admiration for Barber’s music was something at best noted with a sneer, it’s now—thankfully—OK to come out as a Barberphile.”



Stephen Murray
Epinions.com, May 2010

The “Capricorn Concerto” of Samuel Barber (1910–1981) is pretty obscure. The rest of the music on the final Naxos disc of Barber orchestral music played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of (the American) Marin Alsop is very obscure, mostly lovely and lyrical, especially the “Canzonetta For Oboe & Strings,” the portion of an oboe concerto Barber did not complete before his death from cancer. It is gentle and soft, but the music is not especially melancholy beyond the intrinsically triste qualities of the oboe. And it’s not that Barber chose the melancholy instrument. Rather he was writing it for Harold Gomberg, a classmate of Barber’s at the Curtis Institute, who was retiring as principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic. To me it sounds pastoral in a rather English vein (Buttersworth, Vaughan Williams).

On the disc, the Canzonetta” segues (via harp) to the Debussyan melancholy (with prominent, mournful woodwinds, starting with a bassoon) “Fadograph of a Yestern Scene.” The title is a quotation from Finnegan’s Wake, the nearly opaque novel that I’m surprised obsessed not only Barber but also Thornton Wilder, similarly not remembered as wildly experimentalist. “Fadograph” includes some recycling from the first movement of Barber’s (withdrawn/suppressed by the composer) Second Symphony (recorded with the First Symphony on an earlier disc in the Alsop survey). It does not howl, but definitely shivers (string tremolo). “Fadograph” fades away, as did Barber, and as did his “Mutations on Bach” (which lacks an opus number, but was written between #42 and #43 and sounds to me like Purcell funeral brass music) and the intermezzo from the third act of Barber’s Pulitizer Prize-winning opera “Vanessa,” and (not on this disc) his most often played work, the “Adagio for Strings.”

I’ve noted in earlier reviews that endings were not one of Barber’s strengths. Many of his compositions stop or fade away rather than end. The neoclassical (in a very Stravinskian mode) “Capricorn Concerto” does have a conventional if not particularly extended ending.

“Capricorn” was what Barber and his partner (and sometimes librettist) Gian Carlo Menotti called their hilltop home near Mount Kisco, New York” “Capricorn” for getting winter light. There are intimations that the first movement is a self-portrait, the second a portrait of Menotti, and the third (in a guestroom) Robert Horam, with a coda on the terrace. Some of the rhythms and instrumentations are very reminiscent of Stravinsky, though with the general Barber lyricism. (“Lyrical” is not one of the first hundred adjectives anyone is likely to apply to Stravinsky!) The opening of the second movement calls to my mind “Histoire du soldat”—but them wafts dreamily on a clarinet solo.

The third movement has a trumpet fanfare, an homage to Bach. The ensemble is the same as for the second Brandenburg concerto. The concerto is less neo-baroque than “Pulcinella”—or “Mutations from Bach.” In the latter, the middle two scorings for brass and timpani are from Bach’s own setting of ”Christ, Thou Lamb of God.”

The joker in the deck (almost literally!) is “A Hand Of Bridge,” a ten-minute opera with a libretto by Menotti in which four singers bid and muse (soliloquies that become mini-arias). I think it an interesting piece, and in terms of chronology fits in the middle of this set of Barber compositions. But its mood is radically different and a jolt to those settled into the instrumental music. Indeed, why is it on a disc of “orchestral music” at all? It is an opera, or belongs with Barber’s vocal music (such as “Knoxville Summer, 1905” on another disc in the set.

I like the music and might have complained that what follows the “Capricorn Concerto” is all melancholy lyricism without the wild departure of “A Hand Of Bridge”! And I would certainly have complained if the disc only included 42 minutes of music…Not having heard anything (other than the “Vanessa” intermezzo, and though I have recently listened to two recordings of Barber’s successful opera, I didn’t recall it having one), I have no basis for comparing interpretations/performances, but I presume playing and recording deserve credit for convincing me that the pieces are worthy parts of the small body of Barber work, and another occasion for gratitude to Naxos for making American music I’d never heard available at an affordable price.




Penguin Guide, January 2009

The neoclassical Capricorn Concerto, which takes its name from the house that Barber and Menotti shared, is a relative rarity, but this excellent budget version does it proud. The Canzonetta was left in short score on Barber’s death, but this arrangement with strings is expertly done, and the piece is as moving as the very best of Barber. The Fadograph of a Yestern Scene is another rarity, a ruminative and reflective score with a strong vein of melancholy to sustain it. The witty ten-minute opera, A Hand of Bridge, which Barber wrote for Menottti’s festival at Spoleto, also comes off well. Good recorded sound, too. In short this is a most pleasurable issue and repays repeated hearing.



Fanfare, July 2005

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Bob McQ
Tower.com, May 2005

This final volume in Naxos’s survey of Samuel Barber’s orchestral music is required listening for the little known, but highly interesting pieces included. The “Capricorn Concerto” is a kind of 20th century “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2,” but its last movement may remind you of Igor Stravinsky. The tiny, cleverly written, chamber opera “A Hand of Bridge,” with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, is a work of great finesse and a card game you’re not very likely to forget. After hearing it you’ll probably “want to buy that hat of peacock feathers” too. For many this piece alone will justify the cost of the disc. “Fadograph of a Yestern Scene” was inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and is quite impressionistic and mysterious sounding. The “Canzonetta,” scored for oboe and strings, was his last work and has a Mahlerian resignation about it that’s a fitting epitaph for this great, American composer. Two other pieces, “Mutations from Bach,” honoring old JSB, and the lovely intermezzo from Barber’s opera “Vanessa,” fill out this admirably performed and recorded program.



Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine, January 2005

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Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, December 2004

Barber’s Capricorn Concerto, a triple concerto scored, like Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, for trumpet, oboe and flue soloists, with strings, is cast in three short movements. It was named after Barber’s home at Mount Kisco, where he retreated during service leave in World War II, in the company of his friend and fellow-composer Gian-Carlo Menotti and Menotti’s son Chip. The three movements reflect all three personalities. The Concerto was named ‘Capricorn’ after the fantastic winter light experienced around Mount Kisco The music is ‘modern’ in style; Barber’s Romanticism is less in evidence here, the music more astringent and diamond bright but playful too with a note of plaintiveness, introduced, at one point, by a ‘Last Post’—like trumpet call.

A Hand of Bridge is amusing, jazz-based, cabaret-style music to accompany a game of bridge with singer/speakers. It is not far removed from the world of Walton’s Façade. One woman is preoccupied with deciding what colour hat she will buy while the first man worries that his illicit love affair might be discovered. The work is a jewel, a mini-satirical opera for four characters, the four bridge players. The second woman, to music of pathos, bewails the pain of love and bereavement while, to a morose drone and then exotic rhythms, the other man has lewd thoughts about being a sultan with lots of naked girls and boys. The difficulty here is that Naxos’s usual sparse booklet allows no space for the libretto and the uncredited singers (identified in head note from the Naxos website. Ed.), especially the morose woman, are not exactly shining examples of good diction.

Mutations from Bach, a homage to Barber’s favourite composer, is solemn yet majestic. It is scored for four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba and timpani. Alsop’s reading makes an impressive impact and is nicely balanced and impressively spaced across the sound-stage.

Barber’s Vanessa told the story of a woman whose lover returns only to fall in love with her daughter. The lovely Intermezzo from the opera depicts the cold, remoteness of Vanessa’s abode (chill harp arpeggios) and the desolation that grips her heart and the cry of anguished despair at the impassioned climax.

Marin Alsop’s well-received Barber cycle comes to its conclusion with this album which ends with two late works:

Fadograph of a Yestern Scene was influenced by James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, one of Samuel Barber’s favourite books. Alsop captures very well the Debussy-like fragrant, dreamy atmosphere of this impressionistic music that seems to suggest an other-worldly, possibly Arabian Nights, romance—an opium-induced dream?

The music of Barber’s Canzonetta was originally intended to be part of an Oboe Concerto but the composer, disillusioned after the catastrophic failure of his opera Anthony and Cleopatra, and in an alcoholic despair, was too ill, and dying, to complete it. His only student, Charles Turner completed this beautiful last tribute to Barber’s genius. I feel I cannot do better than to quote Daniel Felsenfeld at this point, ‘In its limited way,’ writes Barbara Heyman, Barber’s biographer, ‘the Canzonetta offers an appropriate elegy to the conclusion of Barber’s career.’ The tonality of the work embraces every device Barber loved, from Late Romanticism to the more astringent modernist sounds, and his ‘vocal’ writing for the oboe betrays his deep, lifelong affinity for the voice. This final work is almost a winnowing down of Barber’s total musical self, a beautiful intimate, quiet final offering. Yes, and how sympathetically and movingly Stéphane Rancourt and Marin Alsop sing it!

Apart from some poor diction singing in A Hand of Bridge, this is a very worthy conclusion to Alsop’s Barber cycle for Naxos.



Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, December 2004

The performance is neat and the singers are convincing.



Music Week, December 2004

Naxos once-again delivers a premium-quality disc at bargain-basement price, part of the label’s inspired American Classics line. Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra bring their six-disc survey of Samuel Barber’s complete orchestral works to a thrilling close with idiomatic performances of the sparky Capricorn Concerto and a handful of brilliant miniatures.






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