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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Knoxville - Summer of 1915 Op. 24 (1948) [16.51]
Essays for Orchestra: No. 2 Op. 17 (1942) [11.12]; No. 3 Op. 47 (1976) [14.28]
Toccata Festiva Op. 36 (1960) [14.24]
Karina Gauvin (sop)
Thomas Trotter (organ)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 27 Oct 2002, 3 May 1999, 18 March 2001.
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559134 [56.55]

 

Naxos have shown real commitment to the Alsopís Barber. This is the fifth CD in the series. Itís another strong collection too. It kicks off with Knoxville - a work whose praises I have already sung in my reviews of the Steber (Sony), McGurk (Regis) and Upshaw (Teldec). This nostalgia-soaked soliloquy for soprano and orchestra is part scena, part meditation. The singerís key to success in this work is achieving a balance of clarity of enunciation and satisfying its operatic demands. Upshaw manages the best balance overall and does so most movingly. The historic mono recording by Steber is unmissable for serious Barber fans. 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 night skyís stars. Helpfully Naxos provide the full text in the insert.

These two orchestral Essays stare at each other across the divide of 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 pealing away from Barber were in the air. The Third Essay is given a suitably torrid outing with much darkly refulgent tone and mountain top dramatics. The sense of melody is there but, apart from at 3.10 onwards, direct tunes are fleeting and subtle 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. Now it hardly matters; we can enjoy the work for what it is. Contrary to Daniel Felsenfeld's views in the notes the work feels more inchoate than the other two Essays. It is however 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 his ballet Souvenirs. There is also some very nice dynamic terracing by the horns (8.00). This is a work that sometimes adopts a tense Hispanic lyricism.

This is a soundly chosen and executed collection, excellently performed. If you are collecting the series you will not be unhappy. If you wanted to sample then this is a good place to start if you like the sound of Knoxville. Hard core Barber fans will want the disc for the rare Toccata which ends in a brawl of splendour, dazzling, hoarse and clamant.

Rob Barnett

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