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Greg Hettmansberger
Dane101, December 2010

2010 was also the centennial of the “neo-Romantic” American composer Samuel Barber. Again, not a new CD, but a great place to start at a bargain price is the Naxos disc featuring his masterful vocal work, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with Karina Gauvin the soloist, led by Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The overall tempo tends toward the slow side—making Gauvin’s phrasing and control all the more wondrous. The Second and Third Essays for Orchestra are included, along with the hard to find “Toccata Festiva” for organ and orchestra.

Stephen Eddins, October 2010

Hearing Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin sing Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is almost like hearing it for the first time. She and Marin Alsop, leading the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, manage to wipe the cobwebs off an exquisite piece that’s in danger of being perceived as a warhorse, given the frequency with which it’s programmed and the number of undistinguished performances it receives. Gauvin sings with absolutely pure tone and unmannered simplicity. She tends to slightly drop the ends of her phrases so that her delivery sounds conversational and intimate, just right for James Agee’s evocative prose poem. Her attention to the details of the text and to their place in the architecture of the whole work is practically miraculous; every word is meaningfully but naturally and unselfconsciously placed. The right sense of timing and linking its many sectional shifts is crucial in this delicate score, which passes through a wide range of moods in its brief span, and Alsop seamlessly brings it together. Alsop’s tempos tend to be more leisurely than is usual for the piece, especially when compared to the snappy premiere recording with Eleanor Steber and William Strickland, but they feel just right. An altogether revelatory performance.

Barber wrote three Essays for Orchestra, in 1937, 1942, and 1978, and the Second and Third are included here. The Second is the rightfully the best known and most frequently performed, and Alsop leads the orchestra in an impassioned reading of the emotionally mercurial score. The Third, in spite of a gap of 35 years, shows little stylistic change from the Second, but its tone is generally more lyrical and melancholy, with little of the white-hot intensity of its predecessor. Toccata Festiva is essentially a brief concerto for organ and orchestra. Thomas Trotter plays with virtuoso part with ease and panache, but the organ sounds distant and lacks the prominence it should have. The sound in the other three works is clean, warm, and well-balanced.

Stephen O. Murray, April 2010

As I wrote in my review of the first of the five Naxos American Classics recordings of orchestral work by Samuel Barber (1910–1981), My experience with playing violin in Barber’s Adagio for Strings goes way back, long before its fame was increased by use in “Platoon” and other movies. My experience of “Toccata Festiva” for organ and orchestra goes back to college, when I would often listen to a recording of 20th-century music for organ and orchestra made by E. Power Biggs and the Philadelphia Orchestra through headphones in the James Madison College Library (though I liked the Poulenc Organ Concerto on the same disc more than the Barber).

I’ve long had a recording of the lyrical “Knoxville Summer of 1915” for soprano and orchestra in a recording by the singer for whom Barber wrote it (and his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Vanessa”), Eleanor Steber. The performance by Karina Gauvin on this disc is not bad, though a bit breathless, It does not eclipse Steber’s for me. (Gauvin has a lighter voice than Steber or Leontyne Price, who also recorded the piece in her prime. Both Steber and Price not only had bigger voices, but better breath control than Gauvin.)

The elegiac piece recalls a simpler time. I thought it was taken from a draft of James Agee’s poetic A Death in the Family (which Agee began in 1948 and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958). Barber’s setting of the text was dedicated to his own father who was dying at the time. In addition to strings and soprano, the piece has prominent harp, flute, and clarinet parts.

The Second Essay, which I heard earlier this month in concert for the first time, is more dramatic than lyrical, though it opens with an elegiac flute melody but gets martial. There was a war on, and it is especially audible in the timpani. There are other explosions of sound, though also playful woodwinds There is really a whole symphony’s worth of themes and effects in the essay’s 11 minutes. Some of it sounds like movie music, especially the Big Ending. Or like Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies…The late Third Essay, premièred in 1976 by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra is the most percussive Barber I’ve heard. Not just his usual friend the timpanist, but also a xylophonist. It starts with drums, joined by piano and xylophone (and the piano part is a reminder that the piano is a percussion instrument) and then trumpets in jagged (modernist) rhythm. Barber had been stung and depressed by being dismissed as “old-fashioned” during the high tide of serialism (which ebbed only after Barber’s death) and without abandoning tonalism, seems to have wanted to demonstrate his modernism in this piece, which is very well played by the Scottish National Orchestra on this disc. Things get quite ardent about 10 minutes in.

Mary Zimbalist, a Philadelphia heiress, commissioned t he “Toccata Festiva” (1960) to inaugurate a new pipe organ is a showpiece for organist (here Thomas Trotter). Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra also premièred it (the Philadelphia Orchestra string sound was the model held up to us when I was a first violinist in my high school orchestra, as I discussed in my first Alsop/Barber review). The Toccata Festiva” has major brass display along with occasions to show off organist virtuosity. It also has moments of repose.

The single Barber disc to own is the recording by Barber’s friend Thomas Schippers and the New York Philharmonic of Medea’s Dance, the Adagio for Strings, the Second Essay and the School for Scandal overture. But for those wanting more Barber music, the Naxos series can be recommended.

Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News, January 2009

American conductor Marin Alsop’s series of Samuel Barber’s works for orchestra has been a resounding success. This fifth installment includes some of the composer’s strongest pieces. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is an excerpt from James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family, essentially an independent prose poem. Mr. Barber’s setting has encountered nothing but praise since diva Eleanor Steber premiered it, and with good reason. The piece is beautifully crafted, full of warm melody but not sticky sweet. It lasts as long as many a concerto, and it holds the interest throughout. Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin sings it hauntingly. Barber’s Essay for Orchestra No. 2 is almost a mini-symphony, densely packed and rousing in mood. The Essay No. 3 and Toccata Festiva for Organ and Orchestra are not quite on the same level, but they are exciting in such committed performances.

James Jolly
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, January 2009

[Alsop’s] most recent Barber collection with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra contains a glorious and deeply moving performance of Knoxville: The Summer of 1915…I would stick my neck out and suggest that she will be first woman conductor to make a huge—and acclaimed—career in the mainstream symphonic repertoire. And it will be well deserved! And all that explains why she’s currently our Artist of the Year!

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Alsop’s reading brings out the contrasts between the different sections more sharply than usual, and similarly in both of the Essays (No. 3 a late work, written in 1976) she highlights contrasts to bring out the feeling in both of compressed symphonic structures. The Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra, written for the unveiling of a new organ for the Philadelphia Orchestra, is an exuberant piece that brings the widest expressive range in the organ part and with the orchestra colourful too; surprisingly, this work is great rarity on disc, here superbly played and recorded.

Fanfare, April 2005

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Hi-Fi News & Record Review, August 2004

What strikes one about this performance is how well it is conducted—particularly in Knoxville.

James Jolly
, June 2004

Gauvin takes a wonderfully innocent approach, beautifully accompanied by our current Artist of the Year who uncovers all sorts of ear-tickling orchestral details. Marin Alsop is also excellent in the two Essays for orchestra, works written for no less than Bruno Walter and Eugene Ormandy.

Andrew Farach-Colton
, June 2004

What impressed me most about Gauvin’s performance—aside from her glossy, creamy tone—is its rhythmic assurance. With deeply expressive playing from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the result is ravishing…one of the finest versions of Knoxville to date. Alsop’s tautly argued Second Essay is equally satisfying. She wisely resists the temptation to stretch the tempo at climactic moments, creating a strong sense of momentum; one feels swept along by the music’s powerful current. The lean sonority she elicits from the RSNO also suits…Alsop’s ear-opening Barber series reaches a new high-point with this installment. Strongly recommended.

Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine, June 2004

In the latest instalment of Marin Alsop’s valuable Barber series, the Canadian Karina Gauvin admirably captures both the conversational intimacy and the youthful anguish of the ‘lyric rhapsody’ Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

Matthew Rye
The Daily Telegraph (Australia), May 2004

It’s gentle nostalgia for summers past, spent in the shade of a Southern porch, is movingly portrayed in this latest instalment in Marin Alsop’s Barber series for Naxos. Karina Gauvin conveys just the right degree of ingenuousness, yet brings out the darker forebodings of mortality in Agee’s text, and the often chamber-like delicacy of the orchestral writing is defined with idea clarity by recording and conductor…the RSNO combines power and instrumental candour, and Alsop reveals her characteristic skill in orchestral characterisation.

Classic FM

Karina Gauvin sings Barber’s Knoxville, followed by Thomas Trotter on the organ and Alsop and the RSNO for Essays for Orchestra

In this delightful rendition of Knoxville, Gauvin’s voice blends with the delicate scoring to memorable effect. The two Essays for Orchestra are more of an acquired taste, and I am not sure whether the Toccata Festiva is good music (the balance between organ and orchestra is not good). But it is graced by the playing of Thomas Trotter—the infamous pedal cadenza is simply jaw-dropping. © Classic FM

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