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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Symphony No. 1 Op.9 (1936) [20.56]
Essay No. 1 Op.12 (1938) [8.46]
Essay No. 2 Op.17 (1942) [11.49] Night Flight Op.19a (1944) [9.08] Music for a Scene from Shelley Op.7 (1933) [10.19] Knoxville - Summer of 1915 Op.24 (1948) [16.18]
Molly McGurk (soprano) (Knoxville)
London Symphony Orchestra (Symphony; Essays; Night Flight),
West Australian Symphony Orchestra/David Measham (Knoxville; Shelley)
rec. 1973, St Giles’ Cripplegate, London; 1974-76, ABC Studios, Perth, Western Australia, ALTO ALC1463 [78:04]
This is a familiar, well-stacked selection, first encountered some twenty years ago. Its return to bargain price currency deserves applause.
The sound is vivid 1970s analogue courtesy of the great engineer Bob Auger. Auger’s work for Unicorn continues to resonate down the decades and includes a still respected and admired Nielsen symphony cycle. Those massed strings verge at times on the shrill. That said the aural heat generated suits Barber especially in the torrid First Symphony and Measham and the LSO have the paint bubbling and blistering. Headlong 1930s stuff but with room found for quieter poetry also. The Symphony is an emotionally impressive compact paragraph of a work with a lineage that stretches to the similar-mooded and formatted Sibelius Seventh and forward to Rubbra’s Eleventh.
The other purely orchestral works are very much of a piece in mood. Two years after the Symphony came Essay No. 1 which with a name like that might have boded something desiccated and academic. When heard they are no such thing. No. 1 has a dour intensity that flames and thunders. The high versifying heroism of the Second Essay is superb, as also is the early Shelley work with its fusion of complementary beauty and drama all sweepingly presented. Night Flight (based on 'Vol de Nuit' by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the author of 'The Little Prince') is more subdued yet intensified by the tirelessly repeated piano motif “radio beacon” that keeps the pilot on course.
Molly McGurk (1930-2013) was a sensitive singer and you can fully believe in her assumption of the solo role in Knoxville. That childhood viewpoint is central to James Agee's meditation - which in Barber’s hands becomes part lyric poem, part aria. The work was a commission from soprano Eleanor Steber (1916-1990). Barber made of it an emotive nostalgic stiletto that quickly sinks under the skin. The words are laid out in full in the insert. I do hope that someone will see fit to issue McGurk’s LP collection of Australian works for voice and orchestra (Festival SFC-80021).
David Measham (1937-2005) was born in Nottingham and worked as a conductor with Rick Wakeman, Ornette Coleman, Pete Townshend, Neil Young and the Beatles. (Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). In 1971 Measham moved to Western Australia working as a staffer with that state’s symphony orchestra in Perth (1974-81). That orchestra responds well both technically and poetically to Measham’s direction in the two works featured here. Measham’s Unicorn recordings of Josephs, Goossens, Rubbra, RVW, Ireland, Miaskovsky and Kabalevsky remain moving and notable.
The liner notes are by Alto stalwart James Murray and date from these six works’ first CD issue in 2003. Rob Barnett