About this Recording
8.559088 - BARBER, S.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 - Cello Concerto / Medea Suite / Adagio for Strings (W. Warner, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, M. Alsop)

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Orchestral Music Volume 2


The years immediately following the end of World War Two saw a consolidation of the success that Samuel Barber had encountered in the concert hall with his Symphony No.1 and Essay for Orchestra (Naxos 8.559024). While the romantic and expressive traits that inform these works remained at the heart of his idiom, the Cello Concerto and Medea are marked by an increasingly sophisticated use of the orchestra, as well as a greater harmonic stringency and emotional variety.


The Cello Concerto was written for Raya Garbousova. The short score was completed in November 1945, coinciding with Barber's discharge from the air force, with orchestration taking until December. The premiere, by Garbousova, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Sergey Koussevitzky, took place on 5. April, 1946. Despite initial success, and the receipt of the Fifth Annual Award of the Music Critics Circle of New York, the concerto has established itself only at the margins of the repertoire. Barber revised the score prior to his recording with Zara Nelsova in 1950, and made minor changes thereafter.


The opening movement, Allegro moderato, begins with an abrupt gesture on strings. An understated melodic complex, rather than a theme as such, now unfolds across the orchestra and the soloist joins in almost matter of factly. Only belatedly is the theme stated as a coherent entity. A slower version of the theme becomes a musing soliloquy for the soloist, but the central development quickly emerges as an incisive orchestral tutti. The soloist responds with brusque pizzicati, and a resumption of the initial mood, broadening as before into the theme's more expressive version. The scene is set for a lengthy cadenza, subjecting the theme's constituent elements to the full panoply of cello techniques. The orchestra re-emerges, growing restive in its response, and leading to an agitated coda.


The central movement, Andante sostenuto, opens with a plaintive siciliana melody on the oboe, subtly derived from that of the first movement and intertwined with the soloist's barcarolle-like motion. A harmonic shift reminiscent of Vaughan Williams brings a more expressively-wrought continuation, before the initial tonality and melody are restored. The orchestra effects a brief but poignant climax, from where the movement sinks into ominous reverie.


The finale, Molto allegro e appassionato, opens with another abrupt tutti gesture, before the soloist leads the way with a vaunting melody, inviting vigorous repartee with the orchestra. An inward second theme involves eloquent passage-work for the soloist, building up dramatically in the orchestra. A short solo passage leads to an atmospheric episode, lightly scored in the orchestra's upper reaches and featuring cello harmonics. The initial momentum is now restored, before the second theme returns in sombre hues to effect the work's expressive climax. A further brief cadenza, follows, after which soloist and orchestra steer the movement towards its fateful conclusion.


The ballet Medea has a complex history. Commissioned by Martha Graham for the Second Annual Festival of Contemporary Music in May 1946, Barber began work to a scenario entitled Cave of the Heart. The first version, completed in April and scored for thirteen instruments, was first performed at Columbia University on 10th May, under the title Serpent Heart. The original title was reinstated for the New York premiere on 27th February, 1947, by which time Barber had reworked the score into a seven- movement suite for full orchestra, preferring the title Medea, after the principal character. The suite received its first performance on 5th December, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. In 1955,

Barber telescoped the suite into one continuous movement, Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. This was first heard in New York on 2nd February, 1956, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Oimitri Mitropoulos. Yet the additional music and greater emotional range of the suite merit revival.


Parodos introduces the characters with brazen fanfares on brass and xylophone. A melodic sequence unfolds in some of Barber's most tensile orchestration, abounding in subtle harmonic dissonances. Choros I depicts Medea and Jason, though the cool colouring of solo woodwind and brass, later upper strings, offsets any overt expression. The music gains in animation, though the brief climax subsides without inciting a greater emotional response The Young Princess opens capriciously in solo woodwind and piano. Forceful brass and strings denote the arrival of Jason, the music trying in vain to regain its initial charm. Choros II is a ruminative solo for Medea, her 'meditation', a lilting violin figure punctuating the music's rhapsodic course.


Medea is the focal point of the whole ballet. The mood is sombre and agitated, tension building gradually and ominously as her 'dance of vengeance' takes shape.

A sudden pick up in tempo finds solo wind in an acerbic exchange over a syncopated piano ostinato. The music generates increasing rhythmic aggression, before launching into a tragic climax. Kantikos Agonias follows, an enigmatic and uneasy interlude, before Exodos erupts in violent fashion, aptly evoking Medea's crime, the murder of her children. Gaunt brass and yearning strings provoke a brief climax, enshrining the 'jealousy' underlying her actions, before the music winds down to an equivocal close: human actions are no less real for being the stuff of legend.


Few twentieth century pieces have caught the public imagination more than the Adagio for Strings. Barber's original score dates from 1936, when it formed the central movement of his String Quartet in B minor, Op.ll. In 1937, Toscanini heard Barber's Symphony No.1 at the Salzburg Festival and asked the composer to supply a piece for his first season with the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra. Barber offered the First Essay and the Adagio, which were both broadcast on NBC radio on 5. November, 1938. The inward nature of the latter probably helped reinforce its public significance, with performances at the funerals of such luminaries as President Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.


The hushed but expressive theme, its modal flavour imparting an evocative timelessness, unfolds in a series of dynamic terraces; intensity increasing as the rapt mood is effortlessly sustained. Cellos take up the theme, and the music reaches an impassioned climax. A heartfelt pause, and the melody resumes its elegiac course, resolving as if with a benediction.


The extent to which the Adagio overshadowed his other works understandably caused Barber frustration in later years. Yet it is difficult to gainsay Aaron Copland's description. 'The sense of continuity, the steadiness of the flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates from beginning to end... makes you believe in the sincerity which he obviously put into it.'


Richard Whitehouse




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