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Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, April 2011

It is fascinating to hear Barber’s own recordings of three works from the 1940s, made for Decca in London as long ago as 1950, although they were first reissued by Pearl. At that time Barber took conducting seriously and brought his tutor to the sessions. The performances are excellent and Naxos’s remastered sound (Mark Obert-Thorn) is astonishingly good, especially in the symphony.

The Second Symphony (1944) is a curious case because Barber destroyed the material at his publisher’s in New York in 1964. After a set of parts was found in England in 1984 the work was reinstated and recorded. Barber had retained the slow movement as Night Flight…Later recordings, such as Alsop again (6/00), confirm that this is a strong piece, eloquently expressive of its wartime genesis, that should be heard more often.

David W Moore
American Record Guide, March 2011

…important readings of great music….the best reproduction yet.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, January 2011

Samuel Barber serves as conductor of three works that helped define his status as a lyricist of uncommon dramatic power.

Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn resurrects several performances led by American composer Samuel Barber (1910–1981) that he led with the New Symphony Orchestra in London’s Kingsway Hall 11–13 December 1950. The knottiest of the scores remains Barber’s wartime Second Symphony (1944; rev. 1947), which he subsequently rejected and preferred to suppress. Yet even its stormy and astringent first movement reveals the lyrical side of the composer that his admiring public esteems. Barber’s own conductor skills found solid mentorship with Fritz Reiner, who often led concerts and master classes at the Curtis Institute. The studio orchestra responds well to the rhythmic and dynamic requirements of the generally angular, tormented score—a celebration of the courage and dangers of American Air Force pilots— although its second movement, Andante, un poco mosso, found independent existence as “Night Flight,” Op. 19a. A nocturne and dirge combined, the movement casts a nobly gloomy series of shadows, infiltrated by plaints that we take as love-themes. The last movement moves in twitters and violent surges of energy, reminiscent of energies we know from Vaughan Williams and Walton’s First Symphony. The textures move lithely or thunderously, as directed. The music becomes intensely polyphonic and martial, and we might hear the influence of Bartok’s night music even as the work rises to a potent conclusion.

The major attraction of this restoration would be the 11 December 1950 collaboration with Canadian Zara Nelsova (1918–2002) in the 1945 Cello Concerto, originally premiered by its inspirator, Russian virtuoso Raya Garbousova. Nelsova’s repute lies with fruitful association with composer Ernest Bloch and her collaborations with husband Grant Johannesen. Nelsova has a richly sonorous cello at hand, and she makes liquid phrases in the first movement, the flutes and pizzicato strings aflutter. The first movement cadenza blazes with color and passionate fury, dissipating among strings and chirping woodwinds. Alternately dark and blithely pastoral, the music manages to haunt us long after the last flourishes of the Allegro moderato pass away. Mournful ruminations mark the central Andante sostenuto, a melancholy nocturne with excellent dialogues with the New Symphony woodwinds and ominous tympani. Agonized and passionate, the last movement calls for “trattenuto,” restrained emotions even in the midst of the pulsating tempos. The tympani delivers subdued tattoos under the intricate interplay between solo and strings. A martial procession engages the lyrical Nelsova and the muted brass choir, from which a poignant melody sweeps us up. Nelsova delivers a series of trills cadenza style that invoke a new set of rhythms and high pedal in the strings. The emotional pitch climaxes with a brief cadenza in swooping gestures that moves to a hasty, nervous coda that has the oboe in staccato. Nelsova appears in epilogue, bewitching in her strident passion, and echoed in the finality of sound that concludes this fine opus.

While we know Medea’s Meditation and Dance, Op. 23A, the seven-movement concert suite from Cave of the Heart (1948) remains less familiar, even though Ormandy premiered it in Philadelphia. American theater audiences of the late 1940s and 1950s recall Judith Anderson and Henry Brandon in the title roles of Media and Jason, and the music captures Medea’s feral unremitting vindictiveness. The recording (12 December 1950) exploits the battery section of the orchestra along with strings and brass, the modalities conducive to pagan lusts. The Parodos sets the agon of the score, the struggle between a proud Medea and her youthful Jason, who wishes to wed a new woman and begin a proper family while consigning Medea to honorable pasture. A Priestess of Hecate, Medea recalls her service to Jason in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, even at the cost having betrayed her native Colchis. The Young Princess—Jason movement asks for piano obbligato and harp, the woodwinds jabbering lightly a la Stravinsky. When Jason proposes marriage, a fatal element intrudes itself to which the parties remain oblivious. Choros inserts a lyrical moment fraught with menace that finds its way into the Meditation, Op. 23A. The longest section, Medea, puts us on notice of her malice, that ruthless demonism that comes to claim, “Not that I loved my [slaughtered] children less, but I hated Jason more.” The final two sections—Kantikos agonias and Exodos—recount Jason’s grisly witness of his fiancée’s destruction by enchanted tiara and cape and Medea’s departure on a chariot drawn by twin dragons. Even Euripides knew Hell hath no fury…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

Samuel Barber came to London in December of 1950 to work in the outstanding acoustic of Kingsway Hall, placing on disc three of his major scores. In those days Decca Records had limited access to the famous orchestras it could call upon a decade later, the New Symphony being a ‘pick-up’ ensemble of fluctuating quality. It certainly struggled with the Second Symphony, a work being recorded in its first revision, and after revising it again in 1964, Barber withdrew it and demanded all parts be destroyed. Composed while serving in the American Air Force, he later thought it was purely a response to his surrounding circumstances. Fortunately a set of orchestral parts was discovered in London some years later, and it is from those that we know the work. He certainly thought enough of it to publish the slow movement under the title, Night Flight. The Cello Concerto from 1947 was one of the most attractive written for the instrument in the 20th century. The Canadian-born Zara Nelsova acted as one of the work’s champions and she makes light of its many difficulties, a fact that must have been envied by the hard-pressed orchestra. The concert suite in seven sections from the ballet, Medea, was technically their most successful performance, the dramatic moments propelled with suitable impact. The engineers have done a very good job in transferring the original material, and as an historic document it should to set beside Alsop’s outstanding recent recordings [Naxos American Classics 8.506021 (5 CDs)].

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