Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

‘One of the great landmark recordings in the history of American music’, was my summing up when this series of Barber’s orchestral works was completed. Now in a slipcase all six discs are gathered together and are offered for the price of four, making this an purchase you should not resist. As they appeared they have recommended in many publications as the most desirable performances irrespective of price. ‘Marin Alsop is a musician of outstanding gifts, amply reinforced by this all-Barber anthology’; ‘A strong, muscular performance, fresh and spontaneous sounding’; ‘With deeply expressive playing from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’, are just a few of the reviews that appeared. It has a impressive line-up of soloists including the virtuoso James Buswell for the violin concerto, and Wendy Warner in the gorgeous cello concerto. Naxos claim you have here every published note of his orchestral works, the sound from the early part of the new millennium being of outstanding quality. The new packaging is simple, but it looks very smart sat on my record shelves.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, 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.

Stephen Eddins, October 2010

Naxos’ six-disc collection of the complete orchestral works of Samuel Barber is a gold mine for fans of the composer. The individual discs date from between 2000 and 2004, and this set was released in 2010 to honor the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. American conductor Marin Alsop is an ideal choice for surveying these quintessentially American pieces. She clearly has a deeply rooted affinity for Barber’s music, with an assured and sensitive grasp of the breadth of its post-Romantic warmth as well as its clarity, drama, and tenderness. In the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Alsop has a first-rate ensemble, disciplined and responsive, with the capacity for a full, voluptuous tone and crisp precision, and she draws from them performances of consistently high standards. The performances may not displace a listener’s favorite version of the Piano Concerto, or Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, or Adagio for Strings, but taken as a whole, the collection is of such quality that it can be highly recommended to anyone who loves Barber’s work. Among the very fine soloists, standouts include James Buswell in the Violin Concerto, Stéphane Rancourt in Canzonetta for oboe and strings (the composer’s last work), and soprano Karina Gauvin in Knoxville: Summer of 1915. In addition to the complete orchestral music, there are several unexpected inclusions, such as the very rarely heard orchestral arrangement of Commando March for band, the brief chamber opera A Hand of Bridge, and Mutations from Bach, for brass and timpani. Absolute completists should note that while Knoxville is included, Andromache’s Farewell for soprano and orchestra is not, and anyone looking for the obscure Horizon will have to search elsewhere. On almost all the tracks, Naxos’ sound is clean, warm, and spacious.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, September 2010

The first complete orchestral Barber set makes its appearance on the market in the year of the composer’s centenary. It’s a pretty impressive set of readings too. The format is a light card box housing the six CDs presented each in its own original jewel case. These discs were first issued individually during the first half of first decade of the new millennium.

The first disc showcases the two symphonies. After the picaresquely Waltonian overture with its oboe-led caramel core comes a sturdily italicised reading of the First Symphony in which Alsop takes time to stop and stare. This is not the possessed overcast reading we encounter with Measham or Walter. It has instead a sharply defined vitality which other readings do not capture. Barber loves the oboe as we heard in the relaxed serenade at the heart of the Scandal overture and as we also hear again in the Andante Tranquillo of this symphony. The whole thing is most beautifully recorded and the Baxian magnificence of the final segment is put across with singular weight and emphasis.

After the First Symphony there’s the brooding First Essay (the first of three). Again Measham does this exceptionally well but his now venerable 1970s recording for Unicorn cannot match Naxos’s engineering team’s results.

The WWII Second Symphony (withdrawn by the composer) lacks the passionate cogency of the First Symphony. Even so it is not without attractions. The rapped-out rhythmic ‘grit’ in the outer movements is among its strengths close to contemporary works by Schuman and Rosenberg. You can hear the composer’s own version of this work as recorded in 1951 with the New Symphony Orchestra; it’s on Pearl. The central slow movement by Alsop is most affectingly done—this is probably its best outing ever. As for the finale its glued together structures present no obstacle to enjoyment of the episodes including the sense of an arching sombre Bachian chorale.

Alsop and Warner lend the Cello Concerto a singing liveliness. It’s a fragile creation despite its romantically elongated melodic material and can tip over into a generalised noodling as it does in the central movement. Then again the finale works very well here with the soloist giving the sense of looking over her shoulder as something wicked this way comes.

The seven movement Medea ballet suite derives from the ballet Barber wrote for Martha Graham. It began life as Cave of the Heart then took on the title Serpent Heart. The suite heard here was premiered by the Philadelphia with Ormandy on 5 December 1947. Barber in 1955 took three of the seven movements and wrought them into another work: Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. The extended suite runs a couple of minutes short of half an hour and is suitably dramatic if lightened by some Poulencian innocence (The Young Princess). In the Medea movement a chilly tension emerges into the light. An orchestral piano adds to the texture as it does in the Second Symphony.

We end this disc with the famous Adagio taken at a contemplative walking pace. That moment of silence when the violins boil to unbearable pitch is superbly carried off by Alsop.

The Violin Concerto was written for the child prodigy and Flesch pupil, Iso Briselli, but ended up being premiered by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphians and Ormandy on 7 February 1941.

Buswell—first known widely for his solo in the RVW Concerto Accademico as part of the Previn cycle in the late 1960s—gives a thoughtful and refreshing reading. Certainly it is less relentless and does not invade the listener’s space as much as the dazzling Isaac Stern classic. A slight downside is the tendency to thinness in the string sound for this disc. Coordination is excellent—just listen to the dashing Presto and the discreetly chattering precision trumpet work at 2.55.

Souvenirs is a favourite of mine, discovered when I heard it in 1977 played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Ashley Lawrence in a BBC Radio 3 Matinée Musicale programme. There have not been many recordings (Serebrier and Slatkin) but Alsop’s remains the best so far—though Serebrier is very close. The six movement ballet suite takes as its subject the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel, 1914 with each movement focusing on a different part of the hotel—from lobby, to Third Floor Hallway, to Corner of Ballroom, to Tea in the Palm Court, to a Bedroom Affair and a finale simply called The Next Afternoon. The style is Gallic, plenty of Ravel, some Offenbach and Poulenc (Les Biches). Sample the delectably breathless Two-step and then prepare yourself for the sultry Hesitation Tango which rises to an orgasmic climax—yes the subtitle is A Bedroom Affair. Here Alsop and the Glaswegian orchestra pace the moment to perfection and the dramatic peak, when it comes, is voluptuously done (2.21) by the French horns. The music then sinks back into the pillows.

The rather vapid and cold Serenade for Strings (his Op. 1) has never been one of my preferred Barber works but it is tenderly done by the RSNO.

Music for a Scene from Shelley takes us back into the torrid nocturnal damask which is Barber’s natural milieu. It dates from 1933 and was written after the composer had been reading Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’. This builds quickly from shadowlands to Sibelian climacterics—a full-bloodedly romantic, not to say melodramatic, piece written perhaps with knowledge of Howard Hanson’s first two symphonies.

Prutsman gives a superb reading of the Piano Concerto for years ‘owned’ by John Browning and CBS-Sony. It’s a big sturdy imaginative piece and won me round in this reading far more than any previous version—especially the romantically succulent Canzone central movement; such a contrast to the pounding power of the flanking ones.

Die Natali is a gently bejewelled confection of Christmas carols premiered by Munch at Boston in 1960. It sounds very well here.

Then comes Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Thought I would not want to lose the Medea Suite this bipartite piece does inhabit the material more effectually than the more extended treatments. Its move from Ravelian limpid to stalking surging violence impresses enormously.

I heard the Commando March recently on Pristine’s revival of the various live 1940s recordings of the Boston SO conducted by Koussevitsky. This march seems more Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and even RVW Somerset folksongs than anything more gritty. It’s Hollywood rather than Salerno or Utah Beach.

Knoxville is a work whose praises I have already sung in my reviews of the Steber (Sony), McGurk (Regis) and Upshaw (Teldec). This nostalgia-soaked soliloquy is part scena, part meditation. The singer’s key to success is achieving a balance of clarity of enunciation and satisfying the work’s opulent operatic demands. Upshaw manages the best overall and does so most movingly. The historic mono recording by Steber is unmissable for serious Barber fans though is beginning to sound shrill. McGurk and Gauvin are very similar in vocal signature. Gauvin piles on the pressure when called for yet can relax and be confiding when necessary. She poignantly suggests the child in James Agee’s picture of a family lying on their backs in the garden looking up at the stars.

The two orchestral Essays stare at each other across 34 years. The Second Essay belongs to 1942, a Bruno Walter commission (Walter had famously recorded the First Symphony—now on Pearl). Its heated late-romantic style was in keeping with the times although the first signs of cultural trends peeling away from Barber were in the air. The Third Essay is given a suitably torrid outing with much darkly refulgent tone but direct tunes are fleeting visitors. Again this is warm music-making; when premiered it must have seemed gear-crunchingly out of step with the musical norms of the time. A generous and often enjoyable slice of Barber written five years before his death.

The Toccata Festiva is of about the same duration as the Third Essay. The tender rocking theme at 2.30 onwards is notable. At 5.01 there are some dissonant orchestral protests and the Straussian upward-striking gestures at 6.20 link with Souvenirs. There is also some very nice dynamic terracing by the horns (8.00).

This has to be the most humane and yieldingly emotional Capricorn I have ever heard...and this from a work that usually remains obdurately dry. The lyrical facets seem linked here with the ecstatic style of Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. There are some lovely moments and they include the nocturnal musings of the Allegro con brio.

From a work that never quite took root with me to another I have loved since I first heard the classic Vanguard recording. A Hand of Bridge is a chamber opera of less than ten minutes duration to a libretto by Barber’s partner Menotti and scored for chamber orchestra with four (here) un-named singers. The plot takes its tension from the stultifying routine of a nightly game of bridge and the counterpoint of the vocalised inner thoughts of the four players. The wordplay and musical setting is irresistible, the words are as clever as Sondheim. Catchy phrases and lyrical cells include: ‘I want to buy that hat of peacock feathers!’ and the deliciously insouciant ‘Cymbeline, Cymbeline, where are you tonight?’. When the downtrodden of the two men dreams of power and riches he sings with wistful lasciviousness of his fantasy of ‘every day another version of every known perversion.’ Shallowness, hatred, passion and yearning are wrapped up in acid-clever lyrics...the Naxos roll-call is very fine...This is the first time I have heard the Bach Mutations. It has a sombre Purcellian majesty with moments that can be likened to the ceremonial Finzi. The scoring is for a large brass ensemble. It was written during Barber’s very last years when he preferred to write for his own satisfaction. Fashion and culture had seemingly turned forever against him. He lived to see the first signs that the tide was flowing in his favour.

The Vanessa Intermezzo is given a chamber balance with the harp, oboe and flute seeming to carol very close to the listener. This is magical writing and playing is touchingly poised between fulfilled love and a faintly limned melancholy. The mood is elusive but is superbly defined by Marin Alsop and the orchestra. Vanessa is now clambering back to prominence among the record-buying public. Not so very long ago there was a complete Vanessa from Naxos [8.669140–41]…The Canzonetta is a succulent piece. Stéphane Rancourt’s oboe tone reminds me of that of Goossens. The music is Debussian at one moment and Finzian the next. This masterly performance radiates a certain breathless Bergian passion as well as a calmly drowsy Hollywood glow. Harold Gomberg had commissioned a multi-movement Oboe Concerto from the ageing and disillusioned composer but had to settle for this single episode. It was completed by Charles Turner—Barber’s only student. The piece would go rather well with Gerald Finzi’s oboe and strings Interlude. Gomberg gave the world premiere in 1978 with the orchestra of which he was the oboe Principal, the NYPO conducted by Zubin Mehta. This is not the first recording. There is a good alternative version on ASV CD DCA 737. Julia Girdwood is the oboist and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is there directed by Jose Serebrier. However this version goes straight to the top of the recommendation lists. Absolutely superb!

The title of Fadograph of a Yestern Scene is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. It was commissioned by ALCOA for the Pittsburgh Orchestra who premiered it on 11 September 1971 under William Steinberg. It was taken up by only a few American orchestras (including the Clevelanders conducted by Louis Lane) and is as great a rarity as the Mutations. It was Barber’s last substantial orchestral work; unrepentantly intense and romantic and written against the torrent of the times. Think of it as virtually another Essay (to add to the three so-named) and a companion to the much earlier Scene from Shelley.

The RSNO positively glows in this extremely welcome and romantically rewarding and alluringly-priced set. It hardly matters that this is in fact the only such collection. Watch out for Naxos’s box of the complete William Schuman symphonies [8.505228] and let’s hope that Naxos will also deliver complete Piston, Creston, Rochberg and even Hovhaness sets in the fullness of time.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group