Classical Reissue Reviews

SAMUEL BARBER Historical Recordings, 1935-1960 = West Hill Radio Archives (8 CDs + CD-ROM)

One of America’s great lyrical composers receives a major retrospective in performances that resist age and retain their elemental, authentic power and spontaneity.

Published on February 29, 2012

SAMUEL BARBER Historical Recordings, 1935-1960 = West Hill Radio Archives (8 CDs + CD-ROM)

SAMUEL BARBER Historical Recordings, 1935-1960 = Vanessa, Op. 32; Medea Orchestral Suite, OP. 23; Medea’s Meditation and Dance, Op. 23a; Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5; Symphony in One Movement, Op. 9, original and revised versions; Adagio for Strings, Op. 11; Essay No. 1, Op. 12; Essay No. 2, Op. 17; Commando March; Symphony No. 2 “Flight Symphony,” Op. 19; “Die Natali,” Op. 37; Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30; Violin Concerto, Op. 14, original and revised versions; Capricorn Concerto, Op. 21; Cello Concerto, Op. 22;  Sonata fro Cello and Piano, Op. 6; String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11; Excursions, Op. 20; Souvenirs, Op. 28; Dover Beach, Op. 3; Knoxville: Summer of 1915, original and revised versions; Orchestral Songs: 3 Songs; Statement by Gian Carlo Menotti on Barber’s 70 th Birthday; Interview with Samuel Barber – Eleanor Steber, soprano/ Nicolai Gedda, tenor/ Rosalind Elias, mezzo-soprano/ Regina Resnik, mezzo-soprano/ Giorgio Tozzi, bass/ MET Orchestra and Chorus/ Dimitri Mitropoulos/ New Symphony Orchestra of  London/ Samuel Barber (Medea Suite and Op. 19 revised version)/ Janssen Symphony Orchestra/ Werner Janssen (Op. 5)/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Artur Rodzinski (Op. 9, original version)/ New York Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter (Op. 9, revised and Op. 17)/ NBC Symphony/ Arturo Toscanini (Adagio and Op. 12)/ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Serge Koussevitzky (Commando March and Op. 19 original version/ Boston Symphony/ Samuel Barber (Op. 19 revised)/ Leontyne Price, soprano/ Jean Kraft, mezzo-soprano/ Edward Munro, tenor/ Boston Symphony/ Charles Munch (Songs of Kierkegaard)/ Albert Spalding ,violin/ Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy (Violin Concerto original version)/ Ruth Posselt, violin/ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Serge Koussevitzky (Violin Concerto revision)/ CBS Orchestra/ Samuel Barber (Op. 21)/ Zara Nelsova, cello/ New Symphony Orchestra/ Samuel Barber (Cello Concerto)/ Orlando Cole, cello/ Vladimir Sokoloff, piano (Op. 6)/ Curtis String Quartet (Op. 11)/ Rudolf Firkusny, piano (Op. 20)/  Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, duo pianos (Op. 28)/ Samuel Barber, baritone/ Curtis String Quartet (Op. 3)/ Eileen Farrell, soprano/CBS Orchestra. Bernard Herrmann (Knoxville original version)/ Eleanor Steber/ Edward Biltcliffe, piano (Knoxville)/ Leontyne Price, soprano/ New York Philharmonic/ Thomas Schippers (Knoxville, revised version)/ Jeanie Tourel, mezzo-soprano/ CBS Orchestra/ Samuel Barber (Orchestral Songs) – West Hill Radio Archives CD-6039 (8 CDs) 76:16; 78:27; 78:35; 79:37; 61:12; 66:46; 69:47; 79:37  BONUS: CD-ROM Notes on the performances in English and French [www.westhillradioarchives.com] *****:

The music of Samuel Barber (1910-1981) has so firmly established itself as part of the American experience, it hardly seems credible to “justify” it in any sense. Barber’s compositional style has been lauded for its musical logic, sense of architectural design, effortless melodic gift, and direct emotional appeal. The “Adagio for Strings” alone guarantees his popular immortality, and he composed for virtually every medium, leaving selected masterworks along the way. I was present at the 1962 New York Philharmonic Scholarship Winners’ convocation in New York City when John Browning and the composer gave us a forecast of his new Piano Concerto. Related to Louis Homer, Barber studied voice and singing with Emilio de Gogorza; and that vocal influence penetrates each of Barber’s compositions, excepting the serial works, like the Nocturne and the Piano Sonata, but these, too, have their lyrical moments. The truly powerful works, like the Cello Sonata, the Violin Concerto, the two Essays, the String Quartet, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, several of his so-called “Hermit Songs,” leave a lasting impression of visceral power and heartfelt passion, tinged by the “American experience” of folk song and a sense of place.

West Hill revives a number of historically significant inscriptions, beginning with his Pulitzer Prize winning opera Vanessa of 1958, the MET live performance led by Dimitri Mitropoulos on February 1.  By the time we hear “For every love there is a last farewell,” Act IV, Scene 2, we have become familiar with Barber’s sentimental syntax, purportedly inspired by Isak Dinesen, and rife with misplaced alliances and mistaken identity. Even critics have remarked on the power of the last quintet, “To leave, to break” as an example of exceptional American vocal writing. More visceral, perhaps, is Barber’s score for the 1947 Medea, first given by Barber and the New Symphony of London (12 December 1950) in the form of the six-movement suite; then, we hear a gripping realization of Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance by Mitropoulos (16 March 1958), in the last year of his tenure with the New York Philharmonic. Shakespeare’s phrase in Macbeth about “life’s fitful fever” condenses Medea’s vengeance into a kernel of malign atomic energy. The harp, oboe, trumpet, and piano combination that fills out Medea’s portrait treads with chthonian terror.

While I have always been partial to Thomas Schippers’ brilliant performance of the whirling and lyric Overture to the School for Scandal (to Sheridan’s farce), West Hill presents the 11 March 1942 RCA Victor recording by Werner Janssen (1899-1990), whose legacy on record has much left to re-discover. The pearl on CD 3 remains the 5 November 1938 Adagio for Strings and Essay No. 1 under Arturo Toscanini, who had pronounced the Adagio music “simple and lovely.” The Maestro’s seven-minute rendition may seem fast by today’s “lingering” standards, but the effect transcends all cavils. The 1937 Essay No. 1 had been sent to Toscanini from Rome, at the express invitation of Rodzinski. The evolving piece shows off the NBC viola section before rising through the brass and tympani. The athletic Lisztian-structured Symphony in One Movement comes in two versions, the original (2 April 1938, Studio 8H) under Artur Rodzinski with the NBC in surprisingly good sound except in the Andante tranquillo, streamlined and eminently energetic. Bruno Walter, who made a commercial inscription, leads the “live” revision from the New York Philharmonic (12 March 1944, Carnegie Hall), three months prior to D-Day, and the effect proves leaner still, though I feel more “punch” from Rodzinski. The contrapuntal Allegro ma non troppo second movement, however, appeals colorfully to Walter’s naturally classical persuasions. Walter leads the Second Essay (16 April 1942) in Carnegie Hall, and its expansive lyricism and thick, polyphonic scoring urges its commitment to our American legacy of powerful works. The Serge Koussevitzky performance of the jingoistic Commando March from Boston’s Symphony Hall (30 October 1943) is the “earlier” broadcast referred to on Pristine release (PASC 217) of the Ruth Posselt reading of the Violin Concerto and the Koussevitzky Second Symphony. 

Barber’s Symphony No. 2 “Flight Symphony,” Op. 19, “Dedicated to the Army Air Forces,” in one form or another, occupies all of CD 4, although Barber revised the piece in 1947 to remove programmatic elements, which he abhorred. Eventually, Barber withdrew the work from his catalogue and destroyed all known copies of the score. Luckily, a British source for the full score survived. Koussevitzky’s reading of the original version (4 March 1944) combines lyric nostalgia and martial elements in a finely honed balance. An electronic tone generator in the second movement is supposed to suggest a four-dot radio beam to guide flyers back to base, an effect jettisoned in the revision. Barber leads the New Symphony Orchestra of London (13 December 1950) in the Second Symphony’s revision, a performance generally more brisk except in the last section’s Poco sostenuto. The curio nugget comes at the 25-minute rehearsal in Boston (6-7 April 1951) of the Symphony for a delayed broadcast (23 June 1951), in which Barber’s clear directions to the Boston Symphony players prove refreshing and palpable, a good indication of his communicative skills, especially when he sings his own motifs. Such loving attention, as in the tricky brass syncopations, belies the animosity he later bore the often luminous score. “Later on,” he insists, “you’ll make enough noise. For now, it must be chamber music.”

Barber’s setting of Christmas carols, Die Natali, Op. 37, opens CD V. Charles Munch leads the settings, a rare instance in his catalogue in which Barber did not utilize “original” materials, with the Boston Symphony for a Christmas concert (23 December 1960).  Essentially a folk-song suite, the orchestra splices popular carols of the season in easy harmony and timbres. The Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30 (1942-1954), cantata, received a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, but wartime activities postponed the completion and premier that we can hear 3 December 1954 With Charles Munch, the BSO and stellar soloists, Leontyne Price, Jean Kraft, and Edward Munro. The Danish philosopher’s radical approach to optimistic faith found a resonance in Barber’s own Quaker-Presbyterianism: “”One finds here three basic truths: imagination, dialectic, and religious melancholy. The truth Soren Kierkegaard sought after was a truth which was a truth for me,” claimed Barber. The Cecilia Society Chorus assists the soloists in realizing the often agonized, even explosive, sense of the passion that motivates Kierkegaard’s conviction.

The Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 14 (1939) owes its existence to a commission from industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels, who wanted a display piece for his protégé, violinist Iso Briselli. Briselli eventually rejected the work on the basis of its third movement, a moto perpetuo, which he considered too lightweight for a major addition to the repertory. The world premier we have, from 7 February 1941 from The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, with American virtuoso Albert Spalding (1888-1953) and Eugene Ormandy conducting. Despite some distant sonics, the lyrical beauty of the first movement flows effortlessly, though we wish had a better sound image of Spalding’s violin tone and especial vibrato. The delicacy of the first movement Allegro and ardent lyricism of the Andante come through, quite glowing. The latter, requiring the soaring tone of Spalding, matched against harp and percussion, proves memorable, as is Spalding’s small cadenza. Unfortunately, the latter two minutes or so of really ardent playing lose sonic definition. While financial under-writer Fels did not approve of the last movement’s four minutes of uninterrupted high-velocity pyrotechnics, Barber remained adamant in its defense. Spalding whistles through it in rapidly shifting colors, and Ormandy, orchestral glove that he is, supports every nuance.

CD 6 repeats the Violin Concerto, but in its new revised guise at the world premier (7 January 1949), with Ruth Posselt and Serge Koussevitzky from Boston in sound superior to that of the Spalding/Ormandy collaboration. I have reviewed this performance as it appeared for Pristine Audio. Barber’s so-called 1944 Capricorn Concerto, Op. 21 partakes of the same scoring as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. Barber leads ( 2 May 1945) a CBS Orchestra that features from WABC’s “Invitation to Music” series Julius Baker, flute; Mitch Miller, oboe; and Harry Freistadt, trumpet. Among Barber’s neo-Classical compositions, in the manner of a concerto grosso, the piece evolves along strongly Stravinsky-like principles of nervous rhythmic shifts and angular melodic tissue. At moments, the plaintive trumpet part mimics Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije. The playful antics of the Allegretto break off to permit a somber but ardent melody some development. The final Allegro con brio becomes vertically busy, almost a reminiscence of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The trumpet part blares out against the active strings, only to have the oboe become equally active in its quirky style. The last pages assume a hazy slightly wistful character, perhaps akin to the nostalgic elements in Knoxville: Summer of 1915.  Another wild flourish from trumpet and ensemble concludes the score.

Barber’s 1945 Cello Concerto had its debut in Boston, with Raya Garbousova, cello and the BSO under Koussevitzky. Barber had Garbousova’s lyrical style and bravura technique in mind when he composed the work. Here, Canadian virtuoso Zara Nelsova (1918-2002) works with Barber and the New Symphony of London (11 December 1950) in a commercial recording made for Decca. The broad, often cantering, Allegro moderato provides melodic and muscular gratification, and Nelsova’s performance of the first movement cadenza quite beguiles. For many listeners, the slow movement, with its muted orchestral strings and siciliana rhythm, remains the crown of the work, the woodwind entries, especially in the flute, as captivating as the flowing cello part. The last movement lives up to its indication, Molto allegro e appassionato, moving in strong burst of energy between cello and tutti. The seamless technique of Nelsova, concertante and in a brief cadenza, justifies her long repute as “Grand Dame” of the cello.

CD 7 commences with a short talk by cellist Orlando Cole’s reminiscences (28 January 1973) of Curtis Institute, some forty years prior, when he encountered Barber’s Cello Sonata for the first time. Cole’s collaboration with Dr. Vladimir Sokoloff (1913-1997) delivers rich rewards, clearly on a par with the famous RCA inscription by Gregor Piatagorsky. Cole received the dedication of the Cello Sonata and helped conceive its glorious second movement Adagio. The potent last movement exhibits some influence from the Debussy D Minor Sonata. Cole (1908-2010) likewise plays the cello part in the ensuing String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11 (14 March 1938) from the same Curtis Institute venue. To hear the famous Adagio in its original context, as played by its first progenitors, is “authenticity” personified. The recording quality, unfortunately, lacks focus, almost on a par with an acoustical era inscription.

More historical recordings by way of the keyboard follow: Rudolf Firkusny’s 17 November 1950 CBS inscription of the Excursions, Op. 20 (from ML 2174) features Barber’s absorption of American rhythms in blues and country sources. A “joyous barn dance” certainly rivals Copland’s Hoe-Down, exploiting Firkusny’s natural bent for Czech folk forms. Piano duo-partners Gold and Fizdale (from ML 4855, rec. 15 August 1952) appear for CBS as well, in the six Souvenirs, Op. 28. Barber said of the composition ,“One might imagine a divertissement in a setting of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York…” Souvenirs bubbles with an energy and glamour that immediately conjure the bright lights of the big city. Although the six dances that make up Souvenirs have an international flair (right down to their titles), they all share a cosmopolitan feel, for everything has been filtered through New York’s eyes and ears.

The vocal-oriented CD 8 opens with Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem Dover Beach, the baritone part sung by himself (13 May 1935), supported by The Curtis String Quartet. Its monologue on the loss of faith in an agonistic world makes a sullen vehicle for music. West Hill then provides us three performances of the rondo-rhapsody Knoxville: Summer of 1915, the 1947 narrative-symphonic work based on James Agee’s nostalgic text that forms a preface to his A Death in the Family. Eileen Farrell and Bernard Herrmann (19 June 1949) and the CBS Orchestra deliver a stunningly clear, broad, and energized “original” version, still wrenchingly potent despite some sonic deterioration.  Eleanor Steber, who had offered Barber a commission to use Knoxville to further her career, gave the debut in Boston with the BSO 9 April 1948; and she would perform the work in New York under Mitropoulos and record it with William Strickland for CBS and for her own label, Stand.  Steber’s realization with piano from Carnegie Hall, October 1948, adds a decided touch of intimacy and lyrical comfort to the proceedings. Pianist Edward Biltcliffe urges real character and pathos out of the keyboard part. The third rendition, from Leontyne Price and Thomas Schippers (15 November 1959, from Carnegie Hall), pushes hardest but without any loss of clear diction or mournful wistfulness. Her “May God bless my people” has that special resonance that years of gospel singing provides. Mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel (1900-1973), noted for her versatility in languages, joins Barber and the CBS Orchestra (2 May 1945) for three songs: “Sure on this shining night” is based on a 1934 poem by James Agee, a lyric of identity. “Nocturne” weaves a sad love song, an elegy in style reminiscent of French composers Hahn and Duparc. “I Hear an army” is taken from James Joyce’s Chamber Music collection, a militant conceit of inflamed passions and invasive dreams, ending with a plea for a lost lover.

Two spoken tributes conclude this set: Gian Carlo Menotti speaks on the occasion of Barber’s 70th Birthday celebration (9 March 1980) in Philadelphia. Menotti alludes to their first meetings, in French, and Sam Barber’s role as a composition teacher. The Barber family virtually adopted “Johnny” Menotti. Brahms, Barber’s composer-idol, proved a revelation to Menotti, who had avoided this composer from prejudices instilled at the Milan Conservatory. Barber’s gift for voice introduced Menotti to lieder of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Jim Fassett interviews Barber during a New York Philharmonic intermission (16 March 1958), in which a major topic is the opera Vanessa.

But the  piece of the evening is Medea’s Meditation and Dance of  Vengeance (as performed by Mitropoulos). Barber races the etiology of Medea, especially as it originated for ballet orchestra and Martha Graham. He and Fassett play a recording German-version translation of the ballet with recitation. For Medea, Barber sought “the real Greece,” in which “jazz elements, archaisms, and Westchester County” figure in. Now, her tender feelings for her children alter as she considers her husband’ betrayal. Barber reads from Euripides: “Jason wrongs me, though I have never injured him. . .I will make corpses of three of my enemies.” Fassett and Barber discuss how popular the Medea piece has become, rivaling the number of performance worldwide of the famous Adagio for Strings.

—Gary Lemco




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