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Gramophone, July 2010

The highlight probably of Marin Alsop and the RNSO’s Barber cycle Alsop’s violent account of the Second Symphony doesn’t compromise Barber’s vision—as perhaps he might have wanted her to…

Richard Dyer
The Boston Globe, January 2009

[Alsop] conducts with commitment, flair, and taste, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays well for her.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

The two symphonies are played on Naxos with passionate commitment and deep lyrical feeling by the Scottish orchestra. The account of the complete Second Symphony will surely confirm the reputation of a wartime work which the composer partly withdrew in despondency after its neglect. The First Essay for Orchestra also generates a powerful atmosphere when played with such depth of feeling. With spectacular recording, this exciting collection is very strongly recommended.

Jon Yungkans
The Flying Inkpot, December 2004

Naxos made an excellent choice in Marin Alsop (pictured right) to conduct these works. She understands that there is more than what sheer drive can convey, and that the melodies need to do more than speak for themselves. Her pacing isn’t overly slower than it is in others’ hands, but her approach is broader—releasing the sound world to let the lyricism fully bloom. Even the chirping woodwind figures in The School for Scandal Overture become a seamless melodic line, carefully shaped with the cadence and inflections of the human voice. Instead of simply exploding, the opening chords spread colorfully and build in power—the musical equivalent of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe giving us the vistas of Narnia lying beyond it.

Essentially, Alsop has turned most conductors’ interpretation of Barber’s works 180 degrees, and all for the better. She does not focus primarily on the drama in these scores—a telling choice since Barber’s forte was not drama, but lyricism. Dramatic moments do come, but gradually, through the tension that is fueled from the intensification of those lyrical elements. Alsop realizes that the drama will come without prodding or pushing. Her results sound totally organic, with an innate ebb and flow of conflict.

Also flowing is a seamless and continual vocal quality—the quintessential Barber whose passion for the human song never diminished and was so much a part of his compositional and personal nature. This was the quality that allowed others to discount his music as passé in the last 20 years of his life, which, literally, broke the man’s spirit—showing how short-sighted and wrong-headed the classical music world was. Many of today’s composers, such as Lowell Lieberman and Michael Torke, are turning back to song and melody from more formalistic styles that could easily trace their musical lineage back, in part, to Barber.

Basically, what Alsop gives us are miniature operas or plays. Dialogue builds upon dialogue. Arias, duets, ensembles and recitatives continually shuffle back and forth, with legato and cantabile linking the notes not only into vocal lines, but also dramatic arcs and counterpoints of conversation. Alsop presents Barber’s music as a microcosm of the complexities and inherent tensions of human exchange coupled with the innate quality of the human psyche to sing.

The one composition that does not come off well is the Second Symphony, but not because of Alsop. Barber was right to withdraw and eventually try to destroy this work. Everything about it feels forced. And no wonder: Barber was trying to write an overtly dramatic piece, a grand rhetorical statement—something totally against his compositional nature. The freshness and organic quality of the other works on this disc have vanished. What remains is trite, tiresome and fatally incoherent. Movements simply lose steam and peter out instead of growing to natural conclusions. Alsop has been a fearless champion of this opus and tries to pump as much life into it as possible. But sometimes, even with the best efforts, a phoenix will never rise from the ashes.

You have never heard Barber’s music as the true marvel it is until you have heard this disc.

Lawrence A. Johnson
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 2001

Assigning music of Samuel Barber to young conductor Marin Alsop was an inspired move that has paid off in spades. The volume of Barber’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 is magnificent, offering first-class performances that beat all competition regardless of price.

Stereophile, April 2001

A must-have disc for all lovers of American symphonic music.

Richard Burke
Fanfare, December 2000

Once again Naxos has begun a project that is both useful and intriguing. This is the first in a series of three discs that will encompass all of Barber’s works for orchestra. It is off to a promising start with this attractive coupling of the two symphonies and two of the composer’s best-known shorter works…

The First Symphony is subtitled “in one movement” but falls into four large sections with a scherzo and slow movement in the center. There are some powerful moments in the work, especially at the end of the slow movement, where a huge. C-Major climax dissolves into a tautly constructed passacaglia built on the opening theme of the symphony. The Second Symphony is tonally one of the composer’s most adventurous piece, but still the basis language of the work is conservative and easily approachable. The first movement has a strident, dissonant opening but soon settles into a lovely, lyrical second theme. The coda is captivating and leads into beautiful slow movement. Only the finale, which is often noisy and rambling, disappoints—perhaps this is what led Barber to his dismissal of the work.

These are fine performances. Alsop is especially good in the First Symphony, where her wisely chosen tempos and her restraint in the opening movement allow the music to build in a natural, unforced manner. Her careful articulation of Barber’s long melodic lines makes the slow sections in both symphonies quite riveting. The orchestra plays beautifully—the solo oboe in the Andante tranquillo of the First Symphony is wonderful—and the recorded sound is very goods.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, November 2000

this is the best new recording of Barber’s music to come my way in a long time. © 2000 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

Christopher Wood
BBC Music Magazine, July 2000

Excellent playing and the Naxos price-tag make this foray into Barber’s confused world highly recommendable.

Geoffrey Norris
The Daily Telegraph (Australia), June 2000

Samuel Barber (1910–1981) had the good fortune, or maybe misfortune, to write one work—the Adagio for Strings—with which his name is always associated, practically to the exclusion of everything else he composed.

But this new disc, the first in a series to be devoted to Barber’s music, puts the famous Adagio in the much broader context of a composer capable of boldness, drama and vivid orchestral colour. Marin Alsop conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in performances that have both grandeur and zest.

Barber once said, somewhat self-deprecatingly, ‘I write what I feel. I’m not a self-conscious composer. It is said that I have no style at all, but that doesn’t matter. I just go on doing, as they say, my thing.’ That ‘thing’ embodies wit in his overture, The School for Scandal, an almost Brahmsian rhetorical strength in the First Symphony, a sense of dark presentiment in the Second, and evocative atmosphere in the First Essay. Barber’s harmonic language is in the late-Romantic tradition, but he voices it with tremendous vigour and variety.

Scott Paulin
Barnes & Noble, June 2000

Sometimes the composer doesn’t know best. If Samuel Barber had his way, his Second Symphony would be lost to us, all copies of the score destroyed. Fortunately, this vividly dramatic World War II-era work was rediscovered after Barber’s death in 1981, allowing us to savor the melodic invention and rhythmic propulsion of a great American symphony. Its slow movement, an evocation of nocturnal flight, contains some of Barber’s most lovely music alongside his popular Adagio for Strings and Violin Concerto. Always a romantic at heart, Barber found little acceptance among the severe avant-garde establishment of the postwar years, but his lyrical inspiration ensured his success with audiences. This exhilarating recording of Barber’s two symphonies launches what promises to be a much-needed collection of his complete works for orchestra. Marin Alsop, always a vigorous proponent of her nation’s music, is at the helm of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which captures the American idiom with no difficulties. The concise First Symphony was one of the pieces that launched the young composer’s career, its single movement encompassing a scurrying scherzo and a poetic slow section before reaching a powerful, cathartic conclusion. Alongside the symphonies, this volume includes two other early works: the School for Scandal Overture, overflowing with sparkling wit, and the more earnest First Essay, which shows Barber experimenting to create a highly original and personal musical form. With outstanding performances and a budget price tag, this album offers an irresistible opportunity to become better acquainted with one of America’s great musical masters.

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