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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for strings op.11 (1938) [8:35]
Knoxville - Summer of 1915 (1948) [15:40]
Barbara Hendricks (soprano)
London SO/Michael Tilson Thomas
Violin Concerto op. 14 (1939) [24:10]
Overture to the School for Scandal op.5 (1931) [8:24]
Essay for Orchestra No. 1 op. 12 (1937) [9:18]
Medea's Dance of Vengeance op.23a (1947/1965) [13:06]
Elmar Oliveira (violin) Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. May 1994, Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London (Adagio, Knoxville); April 1986 (Concerto), 3 May 1988 (opp. 5, 12, 23a) Powell Hall, Saint Louis, Missouri. DDD†
Re-issues from EMI CLASSICS 5 55358 2 (Tilson Thomas), CDC7 47850-2 (Violin Concerto) and EMI/Angel 49653 (Essay, Medea and The School for Scandal)


Experience Classicsonline

Samuel Barberís music is well enough known these days for there to be no need of introduction. His career spanned 45 years and his style, once formed, never varied. He achieved success early, through the championship of Toscanini, and his works have been recorded with regularity since the 1930s. In 1933 Barber himself, in his persona as a baritone, recorded his
Dover Beach with the Curtis Quartet. 

The present disc offers a lovely collection of pieces, some well known, some not so well known. The School for Scandal Overture, not written for a production of the play, but created to reflect the hustle and bustle of Sheridanís play, is fabulously racy and great fun. Incidentally, in an article in the Gay Greats section of Fyne Times it is suggested that the Overture is really an Ode to the Curtis Institute which Barber was about to leave! 

Adagio for strings needs no introduction, itís probably Barberís most famous piece; derived from his only String Quartet - which we should hear more often. It is given a fine performance here. The 1st Essay for Orchestra (there are three in total) is a cogently argued movement in three sections Ė slow, fast, slow. It is supposed to reflect the kind of argument one finds in a written essay. It is a much bigger work than its timescale would lead you to believe with a thrusting scherzo for the middle section, and a most satisfying and titanic climax. It was premiŤred at the same concert as the Adagio, by Toscanini. 

When Barber was commissioned to write the Violin Concerto he took the fee and went to Switzerland to compose. Of the three movements the first is medium paced, the second slow and the third a blazing finale. Itís a fine work which allows much scope for the soloist to display his ability to play long lyrical lines and show off his virtuosity. 

The year after Appalachian Spring, Martha Graham commissioned a ballet from Barber who produced the score Medea - which Graham named Cave of the Heart. Like Copland, Barber produced an orchestral suite from the complete score, then went on to extract the piece presented here - Medeaís Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, op.23a (not Medeaís Dance of Vengeance, op.23a as the booklet incorrectly has it).

Barber was a singer himself. His Aunt was Louise Homer, well known mezzo at the Met, and his Uncle was a songwriter, so the human voice was part and parcel of his make-up. He wrote a lot of songs and the excerpt from James Ageeís autobiography, describing his childhood, struck such a chord with the composer that he produced one of his best, and most haunting, works. 

So thereís the details of the compositions. What of the performances? The LSO recordings are good and clear, but the high violins sound a little glassy which ever so slightly spoils the enjoyment of the music. Barbara Hendricks is a fine soloist in Knoxville, giving time to the words and generally evoking a world of innocence and wonder for a child. In the Adagio, Tilson Thomas seems slightly detached from the music so it doesnít make its full emotional impact but it gets close. 

The rest of the programme comes from two different Slatkin CDs. The Violin Concerto originally appeared coupled with Howard Hansonís Second Symphony, The Romantic, and itís a fine performance. Oliveira really has the measure of this work. Heís convincingly in charge of proceedings giving a heart-felt performance full of romantic warmth, deep feeling and understanding. Slatkin accompanies with sympathy and subtlety. 

I suspect that I was spoiled because I discovered the Essay and Overture from an old (mono) Howard Hanson LP and those performances, which I still love, were so powerful, and were recorded with such immediacy, that Iíve seldom heard anyone get anywhere close to them. Slatkin is good but the middle section of the Essay lacks real punch and the climax is fluffed, failing to make the full emotional impact it should. The Overture lacks the lightness of touch which Hanson brought to it, so the full humour of the piece is missing. However, Slatkin is excellent in the Medea excerpt giving a full-blooded account of the work. 

Despite my slight reservations, this is a good and interesting anthology of some of Barberís best known works and it would be welcome in most collections.

Bob Briggs 

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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