SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty

SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty ● Documentary with commentary and performance excerpts, both contemporary and historical ● ZEN VIOLENCE FILMS, available from (DVD: 130:00)

Documentary director: H. Paul Moon

This is a most welcome documentary about American composer Samuel Barber. In a relatively leisurely fashion, it covers the scope of his creative output from Dover Beach through the late Choruses, Op. 42, via generous excerpts of representative works comprising a cornucopia of performances by superb, if less familiar, musicians from the Washington, DC, area, but also a few from notable historical performances. The former include, among others too numerous to name, violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, cellist Stephen Framil, soprano Melissa Fogarty, the respective symphony orchestras of Alexandria, Baltimore, the Washington Metropolitan Symphony, the Cantate Chamber Singers, and IBIS Chamber Ensemble, while the latter include Leontyne Price and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. Commentaries by both current notables, such as Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, and Thomas Hampson, and by important historical figures, such as William Schuman, Gian Carlo Menotti, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland, as well as by the composer himself, collectively create a richly nuanced, and sometimes insightful job of reviewing Barber’s biography and characterizing his artistic contribution, if somewhat less accurate in placing the composer within the context of the musical life of the time. That is, most of the commentators discuss Barber as if he were the only composer of his generation who ignored the compositional fashions of the time in favor of remaining true to his inner spirit. I am moved to point out that Barber was one of many such composers—some blessed by comparable creative gifts—but who lacked the tremendous privileges of affluence, supportive family, and highly placed social connections, as well as connections within the music world, which greatly facilitated Barber’s achieving the success he enjoyed.

Barber biographer Barbara Heyman and French biographer Pierre Brévignon are listed as “consulting producers,” and they provide the lion’s share of the commentary, especially the former, who essentially provides the narrative continuity. The viewer will come away with quite a rich understanding of the scope of Barber’s music, along with the essential elements of his biography, his temperament, and his personality. Even subjects that are often avoided, such as his homosexuality, his long-term relationship with Menotti and its heartbreaking collapse, and the background underlying the internationally publicized failure of his 1966 opera Antony and Cleopatra, are addressed and discussed with satisfying thoroughness.

But along with the enjoyment I experienced in hearing such a generous sample of Barber’s music, and the astute observations of many of the commentators, I also felt a certain frustration that most of what was said is already quite familiar to those who are conversant with the composer’s music. Truly, the documentary is best suited to those who are fond of the AdagioKnoxville, and perhaps the Violin Concerto, but don’t really know much about Barber’s life, his personality, or his other works. Such listeners are likely to find the documentary to be a revelation. Listeners who have never regarded Barber as a significant creative figure comprise another group of listeners who might find the film enlightening. But I think that those who are familiar with the extent of the composer’s output, and need no convincing as to its importance within the canon of American music, are likely to find most of the commentary rather obvious, and even somewhat superficial. Such viewers may feel that the perspectives of the individual commentators themselves are overly dominated by the works they have performed, rather than derived from an understanding of the totality of his contribution.

From today’s standpoint, I feel that it is well established that Samuel Barber was one of America’s greatest composers, and that a substantial portion of his output has carved an enduring place in the standard permanent repertoire, an accomplishment achieved by few of his contemporaries. Indeed, most of his works—the Cello Sonata, the Cello Concerto, the Piano Sonata, the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the String Quartet, and others are—rightly or wrongly—generally considered to be the foremost American compositions within their respective media, perhaps to the exclusion of equally meritorious works by other composers.

All in all, it is good to see the appearance of a documentary that should consolidate a broader awareness of Barber’s contributions. I hope that it attracts considerable attention. H. Paul Moon is to be commended for pulling together so many gifted performers and such revealing historical footage in compiling this multifaceted presentation. 

BARBER: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Program Notes

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto was one of the greatest popular successes of his later years. It was commissioned by his publisher G. Schirmer, in celebration of their hundredth anniversary, with a premiere to take place during the opening week of New York City’s imposing new cultural mecca, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in September 1962. Barber selected John Browning as his soloist and, as he often did, worked closely with the pianist during the process of composition.

Barber’s Piano Concerto is remarkable for its absorption of some of the sound and feeling of the then-fashionable “serial” style within an unabashedly neo-romantic composition. (This differs from such Barber works as the Sonata for Piano and the Nocturne, whose employment of twelve-tone material is utterly irrelevant to the serial style.) Without actually employing twelve-tone rows, Barber devised highly chromatic, nearly atonal thematic material, emphasizing wide-interval leaps, jagged, disjointed gestures, and irregular rhythmic groupings, and subsumed them within a conventionally structured virtuoso concerto, balancing such material with passages of lyrical passion and ferocious cadenzas, all of which culminate in dramatic climaxes.

The first movement is a tempestuous, but formally straightforward sonata allegro. The piano begins with a statement of angular, chromatic thematic material in the manner of a solo recitative. The orchestra then introduces a passionate, wide-ranging, almost atonal theme. After some development, the oboe presents a gorgeous, if more conventional, secondary theme, infused with typically Barberian poignancy. The development of all these ideas is unusually elaborate and complex for Barber, before a hair-raising cadenza and a full recapitulation lead the movement toward a decisive conclusion.

The second movement is an expansion of a nostalgic, thoroughly tonal Canzone for flute and piano that Barber had written in 1959. The expansion fully retains the expressive essence of its source, adding nothing significant beyond further ornamented repetitions of the pentatonic melody in different keys, clothed in varying textures and instrumentation. A bridge figure based on descending fourths separates the melodic repetitions.

The third movement is a propulsive five-part rondo in 5/8 meter, in the manner of a frenetic toccata. The main thematic idea is somewhat reminiscent of the style of Prokofiev. The movement is enormously difficult to play, but creates a brilliantly exciting effect. As was often the case with Barber, writing the finale had become a stumbling block for the composer, and was only completed some two weeks before the premiere! The concerto made a dazzling impact at its first performance, with the visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

Barber’s Piano Concerto won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and the 1964 Music Critics’ Circle Award. John Browning recorded the work and performed it some fifty times between 1962 and 1964, stating that it was one of the most difficult concertos he had ever played. By 1969 it had enjoyed 150 performances. The work may be the most frequently performed American concerto for any instrument composed since 1950.

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

BARBER String Quartet (inc. original finale). Serenade. Dover Beach . HANSON String Quartet. Concerto da Camera . R. THOMPSON Alleluia (trans. Ying Qt)

BARBER String Quartet (inc. original finale). Serenade. Dover Beach . HANSON String Quartet. Concerto da Camera . R. THOMPSON Alleluia (trans. Ying Qt) ● Ying St Qt; Randall Scarlata (bar) Adam Neiman (pn) ● SONO LUMINUS DSL-92166 (74:02) [Package includes Blu-ray surround sound audio disc in addition to standard CD]

This is the latest release from the remarkable Ying Quartet. As indicated in the headnote above, the package consists of not only a standard compact disc, but also a Blu-ray surround sound audio disc (the latter of which, unfortunately, I am not equipped to sample). Let me say at the outset that the sound quality of the conventional CD is extraordinarily full, rich, and clear.

The program of this new release comprises music by three American neo-romantic composers not generally known for their chamber music. That makes this rather unusual among string quartet recordings. In truth, all three composers are “old school” romantics, in that rather than impressing the listener with formal felicities and ingenuities, the music’s appeal relies chiefly on the sheer lovability of its material, while structural matters often fall by the wayside. Thus one must admit that this recording displays both Barber’s and Hanson’s formal weaknesses, although listeners who are sympathetic to their expressive objectives may be able to overlook such shortcomings.

Samuel Barber is represented here by three works: his early Serenade, Op. 1, performed regularly either as a string quartet or in a version for string orchestra; Dover Beach, Op. 3, which I consider to be Barber’s first truly great work; and the ever-popular String Quartet, Op. 11, in its final form, while also including the original third movement he had written for the work, but dropped several years later, in favor of the short recapitulation of the first movement with which he replaced it.

Barber composed the brief 8-minute Serenade when he was 18, and still a student at the Curtis Institute. It is a pale and moody piece, largely reflective in tone, with a central movement that almost calls early Berg to mind. But the final movement is a minuet whose material is rather trivial, resulting in a flimsy overall impression. But the performance by the Ying Quartet is as refined and impeccable as anyone might wish.

Barber composed his setting of Matthew Arnold’s well-known poem Dover Beach in 1931, when he was 21. The text clearly prompted a deeply sympathetic response from the composer, as its anxious, pessimistic view of the unknown future reverberated with his own melancholy temperament. The first recording of the work, made in 1935, featured the composer himself as baritone soloist with the Curtis String Quartet. That recording, still in print from various sources, is irreplaceable both for its historical significance and for its sensitivity and authenticity as a performance. However, there have been a number of fine modern recordings as well. This latest is one of them. Baritone Randall Scarlata has impressed me in the past, and his performance here is exquisite, although the mixing of the recording integrates the voice within the quartet, which makes the text hard to distinguish by ear alone.

The String Quartet has, of course, achieved the status of a “classic,” largely owing to the ubiquitous and widely-beloved slow movement, which, in its transcription for string orchestra, is known as the Adagio for Strings. The Yings do a beautiful job with this movement, moving it along with a duration of 6:52, which effectively mitigates the excessively lachrymose impression that it typically creates when milked for all it’s worth in the elegiac role that has become its fate. The first movement exemplifies Barber’s difficulties in generating a graceful, coherent musical form without the support of a text. Here is a clear case of irresistible material “covering” for a sequence of largely unrelated episodes, awkwardly strung together. Originally, Barber composed a finale of comparable duration to the previous movements, and the Quartet was performed in this form for several years. But the composer was never satisfied with this movement, although many others were quite happy with it. Finally, in 1938, Barber chucked the third movement, and substituted a 2-minute recapitulation of the first movement material, odd as that may be. But that has remained the final form of the quartet. But the Yings offer us the rare opportunity of hearing the original third movement, and—thanks to the programming capabilities of CD players—of hearing the entire quartet in either its original or revised form. For those who have wondered what that original finale was like, this provides an informative option. But though the movement is certainly competent and might have served its original function adequately, it would have diluted the work’s emotional intensity and dissipated much of the impact of the work as a whole.

Although Howard Hanson is often viewed as a narrow-minded reactionary, he was quite the precocious genius in his youth, earning his Bachelor’s Degree at barely 20, and joining the faculty at the College of the Pacific in San Jose, California, immediately upon graduation. There he was appointed Dean of the Conservatory of Fine Arts at the age of 22. The two works by which he is represented here exhibit even more obviously than does the Barber quartet the romantic tendency to favor episodic sequences dominated by mood and emotion over clear, concise structures. Hanson’s Concerto da Camera for piano and string quartet was composed in 1917, during his first year in San Jose. In one single movement, it is a 15-minute work that reflects a French–flavored hyperchromaticism—lush, passionate, rhapsodic, and dark-hued, with plenty of heart-throbbing appoggiaturas. Hanson’s ethos was always dominated by his strong religious feelings, and this work bears an inscription on the title page, “Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes O Thou that dwellest in the heavens,” a quotation that he requested appear on any program where the piece was performed. Yet I detect no connection between the music and this quotation, nor is there more than a vague suggestion of the mature Hanson style, aside from its characteristic richness of sonority, transparency of texture, and looseness of structure. A key motivic element is the “theme of youth” upon which Hanson built his Fantasy Variations some 35 years later. With its pan-European post-romanticism, it will certainly appeal to those listeners who have been enjoying the recent MSR recording of Vittorio Giannini’s Piano Quintet. There is another recording of the Concerto da Camera on Albany (TROY129), which features pianist Brian Preston with the Meliora Quartet. That is a perfectly adequate performance, but this new rendition by the Yings with pianist Adam Neiman displays more confidence and conviction, lending the work a greater sense of aesthetic weight than it conveys on the earlier recording. It is indeed rare for a work this obscure to inspire such a polished performance (although the aforementioned Giannini Quintet is another such example).

Hanson composed his sole String Quartet in 1923, while enjoying a European sojourn as the first American recipient of the Prix de Rome; this was around the same time the he wrote his Symphony No. 1, “Nordic.” Although the focus on abstract formal matters associated with the string quartet genre may seem diametrically opposed to the Hanson aesthetic, this somewhat strange work reveals most of the composer’s characteristic traits in abundance. The one-movement quartet is really a series of attitudes or emotional states—passages of stern oratory, visceral rhythmic ostinatos, fervent spiritual rapture, and warm affirmation—that follow one another, connected by awkward transitions, without any apparent meaningful logic, although there is some semblance of motivic development. But there is little counterpoint, and what there is is quite rudimentary. But loyal admirers of the composer’s music will find what they are looking for in what is probably the most polished and committed performance the work has ever had.

Along the lines of an encore, the Ying Quartet concludes this unusual program with their own transcription for string quartet of the Alleluia by Randall Thompson. Originally written for chorus, this short piece is probably the composer’s most popular and widely performed composition, evoking much the same sort of heartfelt exultation that one finds in the music of Hanson. It is lovely in this transcription.

This is a remarkable new release that will delight enthusiasts of American neo-romanticism.

American Classics. BARBER Piano Sonata. COPLAND Piano Variations. GRIFFES Roman Sketches. WEBER Fantasia

BARBER Piano Sonata. COPLAND Piano Variations. GRIFFES Roman Sketches. WEBER Fantasia

From the photos accompanying this CD, Lori Sims appears to be a rather young pianist. Her bio notes that she was born in Colorado, and now holds a special chair on the faculty of Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo. Yet this new release was recorded in South Africa, and is a product of Austria. Strange. However, one point is clear: Sims is quite an extraordinary pianist, as she demonstrates in this program of landmark works from the American piano repertoire of the first half of the 20th century. In truth, each of these pieces is already represented in superb recorded performances, most on composer-centered compendiums. However, for the collector interested in sampling just these works, this recording is close to ideal, boasting sound quality that is exceedingly vivid, in addition to the pianist’s extraordinary technical and interpretive musicianship.

The Piano Sonata by Samuel Barber is probably the most popular and most often-performed American representative of its genre. It doesn’t really merit such primacy over any number of other equally (or even more) fully realized sonatas, but it is certainly a finely wrought, exciting, and satisfying work. Despite recorded performances by many leading pianists—most notably Vladimir Horowitz, for whom the sonata was commissioned and who gave the premiere—it is only recently that pianists have grasped its expressive dynamics to the point where they perform the work convincingly. Most recently I offered extravagant praise to the English pianist Leon McCawley whose brilliant all-Barber recording on Somm impressed me greatly. I cited him as one of the few pianists able to master the interpretive challenges of this work. Therefore I am surprised to have much the same reaction to Sims’s performance only about a year later. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she exceeds McCawley in rendering the work with tremendous physical, dynamic, and intellectual power. Her traversal of the first movement—the most difficult movement to project effectively—is extraordinary in highlighting the ever-present half-step motif, even when embedded within a complex and busy texture. Sims has a remarkable ability to delineate different textural layers with particular clarity. (I’d love to hear her play Scriabin.) And her mastery of the technically challenging finale is as great as any I have heard. My only criticism of her performance is that perhaps it becomes a little too histrionic at dramatic highpoints.

At the opposite end of the pianistic spectrum from the Barber are Aaron Copland’s path-breaking Piano Variations of 1930. In this work Copland essentially renounced the acoustical principles on which the entire mainstream piano repertoire of Chopin and Liszt through Rachmaninov is predicated: harnessing the reverberation produced by the overtone series. In building a work around spare textures, dissonant intervals, and non-tertian harmony, Copland created a sort of anti-piano sonority that ultimately opened the gate for a wholly different approach to the instrument. In fact, one might say that it is Barber’s venturing a toe into this approach in the first movement of his sonata, but without going the whole way, that makes that movement so difficult to bring off. The Piano Variations begin by impertinently stating the angular, chromatic theme in pugnacious single notes; the casual listener might even mistake it for a 12-tone theme. However, as the variations unfold in a continuous fashion, the theme is always clearly discernible, and the sense of tonality is never in question, making for a very accessible piece, once one has adjusted to its non-triadic language. Once again, Sims’s performance is impeccable, highlighting all the aspects of its musicality while fully embracing the hard-edged sonorities.

Sims also features the Roman Sketches composed by Charles Tomlinson Griffes between 1910 and 1915. Griffes, like Lili Boulanger and Guillaume Lekeu, was one of those composers whose short lives prevented them from leaving posterity with more than a taste of what their talent might have achieved had they lived more normal lifespans. In these four attractive “tone poems” for piano (two of which were orchestrated most effectively) the composer was still under the strong influence of Debussy. Again, Sims performs these pieces beautifully and idiomatically, although I cannot suppress my disappointment that she didn’t choose instead to record the composer’s piano sonata, an excellent work that represents him via a more independent and original compositional voice. I can’t imagine why she would have chosen these pleasant but derivative pieces over what was probably Griffes’s masterpiece.

Ben Weber (1916-79) was, along with Roger Sessions, one of the first American composers to embrace the 12-tone approach, but like so many others, he adapted it to his own purposes. Although he received some encouragement from Arnold Schoenberg, he was largely self-taught as a composer. Even shorter in duration than the Copland, his Fantasia dates from 1946, making it a few years older than the Barber. While avoiding a clear sense of tonality until the end, the work is grandly romantic in gesture and mood, somewhat reminiscent of the Berg Sonata, Op. 1. In fact, I would recommend Weber’s piece to any listener fond of the Berg. The Weber has been recorded handsomely by Stephen Hough, although Sims is no less effective in making a coherent statement of the work, despite moments when a certain hardness or harshness afflicts her tone quality. This is a piece that warrants a good deal more attention than it has received during the nearly 70 years of its existence.

I must end this largely enthusiastic review with one complaint concerning the program notes by Barry Ross. Though he makes a few telling points, his essay begins, “What makes American music ‘American’?” For the past 40 years I have been reading program notes accompanying recordings of American music that hinge on that unbelievably fatuous question. Why is anybody still asking this question? Can you imagine a recording of 19th-century French piano music, with notes that begin, “What makes French music ‘French’?” Or a program of arias from Italian operas with notes that begin, “What makes Italian opera ‘Italian’?” As is patently obvious—and has been stated by countless commentators—American music is music composed by Americans. Why do program annotators find this notion so difficult to grasp? Is it the only premise that occurs to them? In spite of that, this is a marvelous recording, highly recommended to those looking for a varied program of distinguished American piano music. Lori Sims is as convincing in this repertoire as any pianist I have heard. I’d love to hear a “Volume II.”    

Picks of the Year: 2012

Here are the discoveries from the past year that made the biggest impact on me. I recommend them to all who enjoy worthy but lesser known music in great performances. Some may object that the piano music of Samuel Barber no longer deserves to be called “lesser known.” Well, we might say that it is “emerging” from that dustbin. The truth is that there have been many recordings of Barber’s piano music, but most of them—including those by some stellar figures—have been disappointing, as they fail to provide the optimum presentation of the music. But the young English pianist Leon McCawley (reviewed in 36:1) is one of the very few pianists to accomplish just that. I recommend his CD highly.

Music Makes a City ventures outside the Want List mold somewhat, as it is a DVD documentary (reviewed in 36:1). The subject is the story of the Louisville Orchestra. All who have followed American music since the LP era will be somewhat familiar with the role played by the Louisville Orchestra, but few are likely to be aware of the full context of the story. This documentary provides that context. American music aficionados of all ages will be sitting on the edge of their seats.

The German company cpo has been engaged in what appears to be a comprehensive survey of the orchestral music of the Polish-English composer Andrzej Panufnik. The performances have thus far been uniformly superb. But Volume IV (reviewed in 35:4) is the first to make my Want List, because it includes what are perhaps the two greatest of Panufnik’s symphonies: Sinfonia Elegiaca and Sinfonia Sacra, represented here in impeccable performances. Those who already have some interest in this truly unique composer have probably already acquired this recording. Others may want to hear some of the most deeply moving music composed in mid-20th-century Europe—especially those who have been enchanted by Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

And, finally, I will mention a new release in which my own personal involvement precludes my including it on my official Want List: Though it is entitled “Flagello Conducts Flagello” (reviewed in 36:1), a more accurate title would be “Ezio Flagello Sings Nicolas Flagello,” as the disc comprises all the music by Nicolas that was recorded by his esteemed younger brother. Though some of the music has been issued before, the real draw is the never-before-released original version of The Passion of Martin Luther King. The program notes recount the changes that the oratorio underwent, and the reasons for these changes, but one of the results was that this studio recording, made in London in 1969, which featured one of the world’s great bass-baritones, was never released—until now. And as if the Flagello jinx can never be fully escaped, Naxos has released the recording on its “Historical Series” (8.112065), which means that it cannot be sold in the United States (a bit of a problem for a work that focuses on the words of Martin Luther King, wouldn’t you say?). Nevertheless, the Internet provides many ways around this stipulation, such as ordering it from a Canadian retailer.

BARBER Piano Music • McCawley  SOMM SOMMCD-108

MUSIC MAKES A CITY: An American Orchestra’s Untold Story • Brown, Hiler, directors  21C MEDIA GROUP

PANUFNIK  Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 10 • Borowicz/Berlin Konzerthaus O  cpo 777 683-2   

BARBER: The Lovers. Reincarnations. Two Choruses, Op. 8. Two Choruses, Op. 42. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map. Sure on this Shining Night. Agnus Dei. Easter Chorale

BARBER The Lovers (arr. Kyr). Reincarnations. Two Choruses, Op. 8. Two Choruses, Op. 42A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map. Sure on this Shining Night. Agnus Dei. Easter Chorale (arr. Kyr) • Craig Hella Johnson, cond; Conspirare—Company of Voices; Chamber Orchestra; David Farwig (bar); Thomas Burritt (kd); Faith DeBow (pn) • HARMONIA MUNDI HMU-807522 (79:44)

In his program notes accompanying this handsomely produced new release, Joshua Shank writes that Samuel Barber “holds a permanent spot in the pantheon of 20th-century composers…. [A]s the music of the past century comes into sharper historical focus, it’s become apparent that Barber was clearly one of the great musical talents of his time.” Observing this process of continuously broadening recognition and appreciation during the three decades since his death, I have enjoyed the growing abundance of recordings and concert programs that feature his many orchestral masterpieces; this has been accompanied by a similar discovery of his music for piano. I have argued for some time that Barber’s choral music—works both large and small—are among the greatest and most profound fruits of his creativity, and we are now witnessing a proliferation of recordings of this portion of his output. Preceding this noteworthy offering have been discs featuring the Esoterics (on Terpsichore), the Joyful Company of Singers (on ASV), and the Cambridge University Chamber Choir (on Guild), all of which have been reviewed in these pages. The contents of these discs vary somewhat, but all offer meticulously fine, sensitive performances. As superb as this new release may be, it doesn’t warrant praise at the expense of the others.

But the discussion must begin with reference to another recording—one that would be on my “Want List” if I had to make five selections from the entire decade of the 1990s: Koch International 3-7125-2H1, featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by the tragically short-lived Andrew Schenck, in both Prayers of Kierkegaard and The Lovers—Barber’s masterpiece of spirituality coupled with his masterpiece of carnal and romantic love. I cannot recommend this release highly enough to those who are admirers of Barber’s music, but who don’t know these particular works. 

The remainder of this review assumes that the reader will have already acquired the Koch disc. This point is important because one of the main selling points of this new Harmonia Mundi release is its unveiling of composer Robert Kyr’s new chamber version of the cantata for baritone soloist, chorus, and symphony orchestra, The Lovers. The work was originally composed in 1971 on commission from Girard Bank of Philadelphia on behalf of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Acknowledging The Lovers as Barber’s valedictory masterpiece, Kyr states that he has “strived to create a more playable and affordable version” of the work. Reducing the orchestration from full symphony orchestra to an ensemble of 15, he feels that “a smaller version … is better suited to the sublime intimacy of [Pablo] Neruda’s poetry.” There is no question but that The Lovers has not received the attention that it deserves, so the notion that a version for reduced forces is more practical and may contribute to broader exposure for the work is reasonable, laudable, and desirable. Furthermore, Kyr has done a fine job of retaining—even highlighting—the basic musical elements, as well as aspects of the work’s essential character. And Conspirare, under the direction of Craig Johnson, provides a painstakingly sensitive and polished performance, although the baritone soloist isn’t ideal (but neither is Dale Duesing on the Koch recording), making Kyr’s reduction a fair and plausible compromise. But let’s not kid ourselves: This is no substitute for the original, and any claim to the contrary is a wishful rationalization. The work as Barber conceived it—depicting through Neruda’s poetry the course of a romantic relationship from beginning to end—reveals a sense of tragic grandeur that this version cannot approach. The claim that reduced forces emphasize the intimacy of Neruda’s poetry is unconvincing to anyone who is familiar with the original version. 

So, assuming that the reader already has that original version, the question is whether one also wishes to own Kyr’s reduction, and, since the 35-minute work occupies a sizable proportion of this disc, the answer may determine whether or not one decides to purchase the disc. Most of the remaining pieces—each a precious gem in its own way—can be found on any of the other recorded programs, and some of those offer their own unique features as well. The Conspirare release also features Kyr’s re-orchestration of Barber’s 1964 Easter Chorale. This 3-minute trifle, however, is of considerably lesser consequence. 

I will refrain from further comments on the individual pieces, as I have expressed myself on them in several previous reviews, to which I refer the interested reader (see Fanfare archive or They all exhibit the exquisite sensitivity to poignant emotions that is Barber’s greatest gift.

AMERICAN ORIGINALS: Music by Giannini, Mennin, Persichetti, Schuman, Gould, Dello Joio, Stravinsky. STATEMENTS: Music by Persichetti, Vaughan Williams, Hartley, McAlister, Forte, Stamp, Barber, Schmitt.

AMERICAN ORIGINALS ● Col. Lowell Graham, cond; USAF Heritage of America Band ● KLAVIER K-11188 (70:48)
GIANNINI Symphony No. 3. MENNIN Canzona. PERSICHETTI Divertimento. SCHUMAN George Washington Bridge. M. Gould Ballad. DELLO JOIO Variants on a Medieval Tune. STRAVINSKY Circus Polka

STATEMENTS ● Col. Lowell Graham, cond; USAF Heritage of America Band ● KLAVIER K-11171 (63:50)
PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Toccata Marziale. Flourish. HARTLEY Hallelujah Fantasy. McALISTER A Summer Flourish. FORTE Dance Suite on Spanish and Latin Rhythms. STAMP With Trump and Wing. BARBER Commando March. SCHMITT Dionysiaques

These recordings, featuring the USAF Heritage of America Band conducted by Col. Lowell Graham, were all recorded between 1990 and 1994. I suspect that they are re-issues of previously released recordings, although I was not previously aware of them, there is no such indication on the packages, and there are certainly no apparent signs of sonic obsolescence. Col. Graham’s bio identifies him as the chairman of the music department at the University of Texas at El Paso, after a long, active, varied, and much-honored career conducting orchestras and choruses, as well as bands.

These two recently-released compact discs offer superb performances of many of the enduring classics from what has been called the “Golden Age of American Band Music,” which generally refers to the 1950s, more or less. This period of tremendous fertility was due to a confluence of factors, especially: 1) the near-simultaneous emergence of conductors—most notably Frederick Fennell at the Eastman School, William (incorrectly called “Frank” in the liner notes) Revelli at the University of Michigan, and Richard Franko Goldman in New York City—who crusaded for the legitimacy of the wind band as a medium capable and worthy of playing serious repertoire written by the nation’s greatest composers; and 2) the willingness of such composers to test that conviction by providing challenging, stimulating, and satisfying  repertoire. The result was the creation of a distinguished body of work that—as one might expect of classics—have continued to hold the interest of audiences, performers, and conductors, while setting high standards for subsequent generations of composers. (I might add that this has been a far healthier and more constructive situation than that faced by the nation’s symphony orchestras.)

Among the most justly celebrated works included on the discs at hand are—most prominently—the Symphony No. 6 (1956) of Vincent Persichetti—perhaps the most distinguished work in the repertoire—not to mention the composer’s delightfully impish, poignant, witty, and exuberant Divertimento of 1950—his own initial contribution to the medium; the Symphony No. 3 (1958) of Vittorio Giannini, which rivals the Persichetti symphony in popularity, though it is a bit more sentimental in its appeal for affection, relative to the more abstract, streamlined neo-classicism of the earlier work; William Schuman’s evocative George Washington Bridge (1950)—as representative of the composer’s personality in its nervous grandeur and brash monumentality as any work he wrote; and the Canzona (1951) of Peter Mennin—a bombshell composed between his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which makes a major musical statement in the space of five minutes. Col. Graham describes the piece as “gritty music, with driving internal rhythms. It is cellular, in that one thing leads logically to another. Mennin’s language is usually dark and has a recognizable ‘sound’ and personality—it pulsates. I treat this music melodically, although … there are rhythmic cells that are trying to punch through its long melodic lines. I believe that maximizing these two contrasting traits accents and emphasizes the drama of the piece.”

There are also a few congenial pieces of moderate interest, such as those by Norman Dello Joio, Morton Gould, and Samuel Barber. Dello Joio’s Variants on a Medieval Tune (1963) turns up frequently on band programs, although I find the triviality of its treatment of a chant melody somewhat annoying. Gould’s Ballad (1946) is one of the earlier entrants to the repertoire. It is overall a rather contemplative work, with fewer Americanisms than are found in most of the composer’s output, though they are not entirely absent by any means. Gould was delightfully disarming in his candor, before he began to believe the claims for him as a serious creative figure made during his final years. In his program notes, he writes that most listeners find Ballad to range “from relatively pleasant to slightly boring.” Though its artistic aspirations are modest, the Commando March of Samuel Barber has become well-established in the repertoire, probably owing to the composer’s prominence in the larger scene.

There are also more recent pieces written specifically for this band and its conductor by Walter Hartley, Jack Stamp, Clark McAlister, and Aldo Forte. Hartley’s Halleluia Fantasy is a delightful little rhapsody that packs eight different early-19th-century hymn tunes into a mere four-minute duration. Stamp’s With Trump and Wing is an exuberant piece in three sections that evokes the styles of the aforementioned “Golden Age” composers. McAlister was a student of Alfred Reed, one of the most successful of the “Golden Age” composers, although one who did not always adhere to the highest artistic standards. McAlister’s A Summer Flourish is a pleasantly rousing contribution that also evokes the spirit of the 1950s. Aldo Forte was born in Cuba in 1953. His Dance Suite has a strong Latin pops flavor, while revealing considerable skill and good taste.

There are a few non-American contributions, such as Vaughan Williams’s Flourish, a little-known but immensely appealing piece of less than two minutes duration. The English master is also represented by his Toccata Marziale, a staple of the British band repertoire. Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques (1913) seems to have become the French work for band, and appears on one recording after another. A 10-minute piece in the “prelude-and-dance” format developed so thoroughly by Paul Creston, it is awfully tame in both its energy and its exoticism. For a change, band conductors in search of a French work might try Gabriel Fauré’s Funeral March. This is a fine piece by a major composer, and has been transcribed for the modern American band most effectively by Myron Moss.

And then there is the one real clinker, which sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb—Stravinsky’s ugly, worthless piece of detritus, his Circus Polka, a brief ballet for elephants commissioned by George Balanchine on behalf of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Evidently the elephants reacted to the music with appropriate disdain.

As noted toward the beginning of this review, these are all basically superb performances, and I stand by that. However, since many of these pieces can be found on multiple recordings, it is only fair to the consumer that I note certain imperfections that may affect acquisition decisions. The performance of the Persichetti Symphony strikes me as a little under-energized, while the third movement is taken at a rushed tempo that seems at odds with the natural respiration of the music. And in the lovely “Soliloquy” of the Divertimento, the trumpet soloist uses a little too much vibrato. In the Giannini Symphony, certain rhythmic asymmetries in the third movement fail to emerge clearly. Aside from these minor matters, the performances are excellent.

Also generally good are the unsigned program notes, although the following sentences appear in the booklet accompanying American Originals: “[William] Schuman contributed substantially to the growth of Juilliard during his more than twenty years of leadership. He persuaded the stewards of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to include Juilliard in the plans for their newly-designed complex.” It should be noted that Schuman was not president of Juilliard for more than twenty years. He was president for 17 years, but Peter Mennin, his successor, was president for 21. Also, while the idea of incorporating Juilliard into Lincoln Center may have been Schuman’s, it was Mennin who actually engineered and supervised the move.

BARBER Piano Sonata. Souvenirs. Excursions. Nocturne. Ballade. Two Interludes. Three Sketches. Despite and Still. Hermit Songs. Three Songs, Op. 45. Nuvoletta. Four Songs. (2 CD’s)

BARBER Piano Sonata. Souvenirs. Excursions. Nocturne. Ballade. Two Interludes. Three Sketches ● Leon McCawley (pn) ● SOMM SOMMCD-108 (69:28)

BARBER Despite and Still. Hermit Songs. Three Songs, Op. 45. Nuvoletta. Four Songs ● Melissa Fogarty (sop); Marc Peloquin (pn) ● AUREOLE 101 (48:44)

These recent releases offer extensive surveys of two areas within the small but exquisite output of Samuel Barber: his music for piano solo and his music for voice and piano. The solo piano did not inspire the composer’s most impressive utterances, as did chorus, voice, and orchestra, although some may disagree, especially in defense of the Piano Sonata. True, these pieces do have their merits as well as their weaknesses. The virtually catechistic Piano Sonata is certainly the most ambitious of these, although only the smallest number of pianists has successfully provided evidence for it as one of the greatest American works in the genre, and many commentators have observed that the work reaches for something beyond the composer’s grasp. The Sonata attempts to project a grand neo-romanticism while demonstrating an awareness of some of the materials and techniques associated with modernism, at the same time presenting formidable challenges to the virtuosity of a performer such as Vladimir Horowitz, for whom it was written. More than a few American composers have attempted precisely the same task, and some have been more successful artistically than Barber, although the prominence of his name has assured that none of them has achieved a comparable frequency of performance. The most problematical portion of Barber’s effort is the first movement, which struggles to make the more dissonant ideas convincing, and to integrate those ideas with the more sensuous, romantic material. (Barber managed essentially the same task far more successfully in the first movement of his Piano Concerto.) Part of the problem is that the primary thematic material is placed in registers of the piano that do not lend it sufficient resonance to achieve the intended expressive effect. The second movement is a dainty intermezzo for which I see no structural purpose, although others may disagree. The slow movement is a dark, gloomy nocturne that allows the composer to do what he does best. He had wanted to end the work with this slow movement, but Horowitz insisted on a flashy, technically challenging finale, so Barber reluctantly produced an elaborate fugue based on Hispanic dance rhythms that has served its intended purpose for scores of pianists ever since.

The foregoing serves to highlight the extraordinary accomplishment of the young English pianist Leon McCawley. McCawley was born in the early 1970s, by which time the Barber Sonata was already established as the American neo-romantic piano sonata par excellence. Hence he represents what I have termed a “second-generation performance.” When presenting a relatively new work, soloists and conductors typically show little understanding of the core values of the work and the kinds of emphases and tempos that best project those values. It is usually not until the second generation of performers appears—i.e., those who have grown up already familiar with the piece and with the various prior attempts to present it effectively—that readings begin to appear that really address the rhetorical dynamics of a given work successfully. (“What?!,” I can hear some readers exclaim, “You don’t think that Horowitz was successful in achieving this?” No, I don’t think he was.) I am not saying that NO pianist has been able to project the sonata effectively. Several years ago I discovered a recording whose contents are virtually replicated by the program presented here, featuring a relatively unknown Bulgarian-French pianist named Lilia Boyadjieva, on the small French label Solstice. At the time I cited that disc as the finest all-Barber recording yet to appear, and Barber biographer Barbara Heyman subsequently expressed the same opinion. I must say that this new release matches, and perhaps exceeds, that standard. McCawley fully masters the Sonata’s technical challenges, delineating the often-murky textures with astonishing polyphonic clarity, and revealing a thorough understanding of the rhetoric of the work. The Sonata’s weaknesses may still be evident, but McCawley makes the most convincing case for it that I have heard.

The remaining works are far less ambitious efforts, and are largely of peripheral interest. The exception is the 1959 Nocturne, ostensibly a “homage to John Field,” although Chopin is never far from the composer’s—or the listener’s—mind. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully mysterious, ethereal work in which romantic and even atonal elements are integrated with ease.

Since Barber’s death in 1981, several pieces have emerged—largely juvenilia—that the composer had never intended for public dissemination, and I understand that more are on the way. The ethics of this are highly debatable, although I do not pretend to have a definitive answer or solution. I do believe that the composer’s intentions must be respected, yet I would hate to be without Barber’s Symphony No. 2—one of the great American symphonies of the early 1940s—which the composer unequivocally attempted to destroy.

So it is with some ambivalence that I address the Three Sketches that Barber composed when he was 14. The music is notable for its remarkable sophistication and charm, while displaying the somewhat aloof gentility that characterized his public persona. Of his mature works, the one that these early pieces clearly foreshadow is Souvenirs, the divertissement that Barber composed in 1951, originally for piano, four hands. Subsequently the work was arranged for two hands, for two pianos, and was orchestrated for a ballet created by George Balanchine. Intended as pure entertainment, the music is an evocation of “high society” during the early years of the 20th century, and is far from the elegiac music to which we are accustomed from this composer. However, while perhaps not to everyone’s taste, the music—with its waltz, tango, galop et al.—displays a light touch without a trace of gaucherie. Pianist McCawley is as acute in capturing the elegant refinement and finesse of this music as he is in projecting the complexities of the Sonata.

The Interludes are two more pieces that have surfaced posthumously. Composed during the early 1930s—around the same time as the Overture to the “School for Scandal” and the Cello Sonata—these pieces show even more devotion to the style of Brahms than does the latter work. This may account for the composer’s ultimate rejection of them from his canon. The second is very short and Scherzo-like in the Brahmsian manner. But the first is really quite moving, and is Barber’s only piece for piano that shares features of the beloved early style exemplified by the Essay No. 1 and, of course, the famous Adagio. It is another of the rejected pieces that I enjoy with some guilt.

The Excursions date from the early 1940s, a period when Barber was experimenting with styles—neo-classicism, explicit Americana, etc.—that were being exploited successfully by other composers at the time. Each of these four pieces sticks a toe into such vernacular styles as boogie-woogie, the blues, and the hoe-down. Here Barber was out of his element, resulting in some of his weakest and most embarrassing music. McCawley does what he can with them.

The latest piece on the program is the sadly pathetic Ballade, composed in 1977, after five years of creative silence, during which depression and alcoholism had sapped Barber’s creative drive, although he attempted to revive it in response to the generous commission offered by the Van Cliburn Competition. The 6-minute piece opens and closes with a dreamy descending chord progression that simply goes nowhere despite some Scriabinesque attempts. Sandwiched between is a brief, turbulent passage of equivalent impotence. I must say that this is the one piece into which McCawley is unable to breathe as much life as did Lilia Boyadjieva on her recorded Barber recital.

The other new Barber release discussed here features soprano Melissa Fogarty, along with pianist Marc Peloquin. Their recital focuses on Barber’s later, less well-known song cycles: the deeply moving Despite and Still, and the sadly valedictory Three Songs, Op. 45, written for the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1972. Also included are the Hermit Songs, the Menottiesque Nuvoletta, and such earlier favorites as “Sure on this Shining Night,” “The Secrets of the Old,” “Monks and Raisins,” and “Rain Has Fallen.”

Fogarty possesses an extremely light soprano, with a rapid, fluttery vibrato. She is most effective in the lighter fare, such as Nuvoletta, “The Secrets of the Old,” “Monks and Raisins,” and some of the Hermit Songs. However, frankly, her expressive range is extremely narrow, her enunciation does not project, and that fluttery vibrato becomes increasingly intrusive as one attempts to absorb the relatively short program. Her voice is simply not suited for the wider and deeper range of expression required for the more serious songs. Texts and program notes are not included, but may be downloaded from her Web site.  


BARBER HISTORICAL RECORDINGS: 1935-1960 ● Various performers ● WHRA 6039, analog (9 CDs)

CDs 1, 2: Vanessa (Mitropoulos, cond; Steber, Gedda, Elias, Resnik, Tozzi; Metropolitan Opera Company) Live: New York City 2/1/1958; Medea:Orchestral Suite (Barber, cond; New SO of London) London 12/12/1950 [Decca LX-3049]; Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (Mitropoulos, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 3/16/1958 (156:43)

CD 3: Overture to “The School for Scandal” (W. Janssen, cond; Janssen SO of Los Angeles) Los Angeles 3/11/1942 [Victor 11-8591]; Symphony No. 1: original version (Rodzinski, cond; NBC SO) Live broadcast: Studio 8H 4/2/1938; Symphony No. 1: revised version (B. Walter, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 3/12/1944; Adagio for Strings (Toscanini, cond; NBC SO) Live broadcast: Studio 8H 11/5/1938; Essay No. 1 (Toscanini, cond; NBC SO) Live broadcast: Studio 8H 11/5/1938; Essay No. 2 (B. Walter, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 4/16/1942; Commando March (Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 10/30/1943 (78:35)

CD 4: Symphony No. 2: original version (Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO) Live broadcast: Boston 3/4/1944; Symphony No. 2: revised version (Barber, cond; New SO of London) London 12/13/1950 [Decca LX-3050]; Symphony No. 2: revised version (Barber, cond; Boston SO) Rehearsal: Boston 4/1951 (79:37)

CD 5: Die Natali (Munch, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 12/23/1960; Prayers of Kierkegaard (L. Price, sop; Munch, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 12/3/1954; Violin Concerto: original version (A. Spalding, vn; Ormandy, cond; Philadelphia O) Live: Philadelphia 2/7/1941 (61:12)

CD 6: Violin Concerto: revised version (R. Posselt, vn; Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 1/7/1949; Capricorn Concerto (J. Baker, fl; M. Miller, ob; H. Freistadt, tpt; Barber, cond; CBS SO) Live broadcast: 5/2/1945; Cello Concerto (Z. Nelsova, vc; Barber, cond; New SO of London) London 12/11/1950 [Decca LPS-332] (66:46)

CD 7: Cello Sonata (O. Cole, vc; V. Sokoloff, pn) Live: Philadelphia 1/28/1973; String Quartet: original version (Curtis Qt) Live: Philadelphia 3/14/1938; Excursions (Rudolf Firkusny, pn) New York City 11/17/1950 [Columbia ML-2174]; Souvenirs(Gold and Fizdale, duo-pianists) 8/15/1952 [Columbia ML-4855] (69:47)

CD 8: Dover Beach (Barber, bar; Curtis St Qt) 5/13/1935 [Victor-8998]; Knoxville: Summer of 1915: original version (E. Farrell, sop; B. Herrmann, cond; CBS SO) Live broadcast: 6/19/1949; Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (E. Steber, sop; E. Biltcliffe, pn) Live: Carnegie Hall 10/1958; Knoxville: Summer of 1915: revised version (L. Price, sop; T. Schippers, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 11/15/1959; Three Songs (J. Tourel, mez; Barber, cond; CBS SO) Live: 5/2/1945; MENOTTI on Barber’s 70th Birthday; Philadelphia 3/9/1980; Interview by James Fassett; New York City 3/16/1958 (79:37)

CD 9: CD-ROM: Notes on the performances in English (by Barbara Heyman) and in French (by Pierre Brevignon)

BARBER Violin Concerto.1 Symphony No. 2.2 Commando March3 ● Serge Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO; Ruth Posselt (vn)1 ● PRISTINE PASC 217, mono (56:31) Live: Boston 1/7/1949;1 Live broadcast: Boston 3/4/1944;2 Live broadcast: Hunter College 2/12/19443

Let me be clear: These recordings are not for everybody—definitely not for those just beginning to discover and appreciate the musical output of Samuel Barber. Every work listed here is currently available on at least one or two modern recordings that offer more polished and more subtly nuanced performances than these—not to mention the considerable virtues of modern recording technology. On the other hand, listeners who are thoroughly familiar with Barber’s works and the state-of-the-art recordings of his music may find much of supplementary interest in these early recordings—most taken from live concert broadcasts, some from early LPs. (They may also be of interest to collector-devotees of the soloists or conductors involved.) An indisputable point of fascination is the fact that several of the earliest recordings here document “original” versions of pieces that the composer subsequently revised, in which latter form they have become familiar to many listeners. Thus one can hear the original—and totally different—finale of the String Quartet, the original—and totally different—scherzo of the Symphony No. 1, as well as original versions of pieces that were modified less drastically in one way or another: e.g., the Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 2, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and others. Many will also be interested in hearing performances involving major figures not generally associated with American music—conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Charles Munch, Artur Rodzinski; and soloists like Eileen Farrell, Jennie Tourel, and Rudolf Firkusny. Then there are recordings of Barber himself conducting—and in one case singing—his own music, although these performances have been generally available on and off for the past half-century.
One factor often overlooked that distinguishes early performances like these from more recent renditions is the matter of familiarity—not just the obvious fact that at a premiere or almost-premiere, the conductor is relatively unfamiliar with the score as are the players with their parts, but, possibly more important, the players have no idea of the role played by their own parts within the ensemble as a whole. This factor renders early performances a virtually different species from performances in which all participants are familiar with the piece they are playing. Not only does this make most initial performances more bewildered than is generally recognized, but it underscores the extraordinary accomplishment when such a performance is really excellent.

In addition to the eight CDs of music, there is an additional CD-ROM which features copious program notes—97 informative pages by Barber biographer Barbara Heyman, as well as an essay in French by Pierre Brevignon. Though the set is not available through American retail outlets, it can be ordered worldwide from

Readers will notice the appearance of an additional CD in the headnote above. The contents of that recording, recently released on the Pristine label, essentially duplicate—with one exception to be noted later—performances found on the larger set. But the recordings on the Pristine disc have been processed by the noted specialist in audio restoration Mark Obert-Thorn, and are marginally superior to those heard on the WHRA set. The Obert-Thorn restorations may be purchased from

Following are observations that occurred to me while I listened to these recordings, reported in the sequence in which they appear in the set: Vanessa is Barber’s first opera, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Company, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1958. The music is gorgeous, despite a ludicrous libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, who also served as stage director of the first production. The performance offered here occurred two weeks after the premiere. The RCA recording of the complete work in its original form was made several months later, with the identical cast. Eleanor Steber, who was not the first choice for the title role, accepted the part at essentially the last minute, reportedly learning the role in six weeks. Hence the commercial recording allowed her—as well as the rest of the cast—to become more familiar and comfortable with the work. Listeners interested in hearing that original version are strongly advised to acquire the commercial recording, which has been available for most of the past 50 years. The broadcast performance heard here is of documentary value only, as it is marred by radio station interference, while Steber displays a nervous-sounding warble that is under much better control on the commercial recording. Meanwhile, listeners who want to lower their risk, while preferring to acquaint themselves with Barber’s somewhat condensed 1964 revision, are referred to the excellent, budget-priced Naxos recording, released in 2004; if they haven’t acquired it by now, confirmed devotees of the work are strongly encouraged to seek the extraordinary, full-priced edition on Chandos, released one year later.

Medea, commissioned during the mid-1940s by Martha Graham, who choreographed the work with the title Cave of the Heart, went through several stages in becoming a concert work. As specified by Graham, the music, perhaps Barber’s most aggressively dissonant score, was arranged for a small chamber ensemble, an instrumentation that underlined its debt to Stravinsky. In preparing a concert suite of about 25 minutes, Barber condensed the original somewhat, while expanding the orchestration to a typical ballet ensemble, but retaining the brittle, hard-edged sonorities of the music. It was this version that Barber used for the 1950 recording released by London/Decca, with the New Symphony Orchestra of London, under the composer’s own direction. Although Barber disliked conducting and ultimately gave it up, having decided that he lacked the gift for it, the performances on that 1950 recording are all excellent for their time, and provide useful guidance regarding tempo and phrasing. (Several years later, Mercury issued a fine stereo recording of this version, conducted by Howard Hanson.) In 1955 Barber decided to make yet another version of the work—a one-movement symphonic poem scored for full symphony orchestra. Entitled Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, this version condenses the music into about half the duration of the ballet suite, and is quite effective on its own terms. Interestingly, this fuller, richer orchestration, which omits some of the driest, sparest material, has the effect of turning a “middle-period” work into a “late-period” work (according to the divisions outlined in my book, Voices in the Wilderness). Dimitri Mitropoulos introduced the piece in this incarnation with the New York Philharmonic in 1956. This 1958 performance with the same forces is rather dull until the “Dance of Vengeance,” which projects a truly driven intensity. While the performance is somewhat important historically, the sound quality is rather poor, while today there are many recordings that far exceed this one in every way.

Barber composed his Overture to “The School for Scandal” in 1931, while still a student at the Curtis Institute. By 1942, when the performance offered here took place, the piece had already begun to become familiar. Not only is this performance messy, as compared with the brilliance and polish offered by most modern recordings, but conductor Werner Janssen deviated somewhat from the composer’s tempo indications, much to his annoyance.

Barber composed his masterly Symphony No. 1 in 1936 in Italy, where its first performance took place. Before the work was completed, Artur Rodzinski had already promised the composer that he would lead several performances with major orchestras in the United States. Barber made significant revisions of the work in 1943, so the performance Rodzinski led with the NBC Symphony in 1938 presented the rarely-heard first version. As mentioned earlier, the original and rather Tchaikovskian scherzo section would be replaced by entirely different material—except for a few measures toward the middle. There was some tightening of the first section as well. Some passages of this performance are played with passion and conviction, while at other times the orchestra seems oblivious to what is going on. The revised—and final—version of the work was introduced by Bruno Walter and the Philadelphia Orchestra in February, 1944. The performance offered here, with the New York Philharmonic, took place the following month. This may be regarded as Walter’s definitive interpretation of the work, because the commercial recording he made shortly thereafter was marred by tempos distorted to accommodate the time limits of 78 rpm recording.

Now we turn to one of the truly “legendary” performances: the premiere of the Adagio for Strings, from the NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast of November 5, 1938. Although this is not its first appearance on compact disc, listeners coming to it afresh will inevitably find it fascinating to hear the piece without the accretion of decades of lachrymose associations. Not surprisingly, Toscanini’s tempo is brisk and relatively unsentimental, lasting just over seven minutes. (Today’s norm is eight or nine minutes, with Bernstein taking ten). He also brings out the alto line more prominently than we are accustomed to hearing. One can’t help but wonder whether the musicians had any idea that they were launching what was to become a true classic.

Toscanini’s premier reading of the Essay No. 1 from that same concert is also of interest—in particular, because Barber did some post-premiere tightening of this piece as well, omitting some music I found rather beautiful. The conductor also added trumpet to the strings on the last note—a change that Barber did not incorporate into his final version. Toscanini takes the scherzo section quite briskly—faster than we are accustomed to hearing—but the orchestra manages to comply with precision.

The premiere of Essay No. 2 was given by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bruno Walter in April, 1942. That performance, which again includes a few measures that Barber subsequently eliminated, was fair enough. The work itself is a difficult one to bring off satisfactorily, as it has a great deal to say, but does not allow enough time to say it adequately. Although there is much in it that is very beautiful and moving, the piece is one of Barber’s few miscalculations. And Walter offered nothing in the way of “old world” insight to redeem it.

Commando March was composed in 1943, during Barber’s period of military service. As a military march it is quite sophisticated musically, but rather epicene in expression. Originally scored for wind band, it was orchestrated soon afterward by the composer at Koussevitzky’s suggestion. The performance here features the Boston Symphony, playing it the day after its orchestral premiere. The rendition on the Pristine disc features the same performers, taken from a concert more than three months later. This reading is notably superior as both a performance and a recording.

The Symphony No. 2, initially completed in 1944, was Barber’s main contribution to the war effort; the words “dedicated to the Army Air Forces” were originally appended to the title. Because Barber was nationally recognized as one of America’s most important composers at the time, his effort—both during and after its completion—was the focus of much national attention beyond the music-related media. As is so often the case with attempts to interest the general public in an abstract, “classical” piece of music, much was made of extramusical factors. Barber supposedly sought to capture the feelings of the men of the Air Force in flight, and was taken up in the air so that he could experience this himself. Also, to underline its modernity Barber was persuaded to include in the scoring a sound produced by an electronic tone generator designed by Bell Labs.
In addition to its patriotic intentions, the symphony can also be viewed as Barber’s contribution to “the Great American Symphony,” i.e., a work that might be positively associated with the nation’s spiritual identity at the time. (See Nicholas Tawa’s book The Great American Symphony: Music, the Depression, and War [2009].) This was a pre-occupation of many composers during the 1940s. Barber’s symphony proved to be one of his most problematic works—one with which he was initially disappointed, subsequently revised to his temporary satisfaction, conducted on recording, then ultimately withdrew, although it was revived during the late 1980s, with the approval of his estate, and has since been performed and recorded several times. Despite Barber’s ambivalence about the work, it stands among the finest of those American symphonies of the 1940s. For all these reasons, the work’s presentation at the hands of Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, broadcast nationwide on March 4, 1944—the day after the premiere—is another performance that may justly be termed “legendary.” The sound quality on the large set is not too bad, though slightly better on the Pristine release, where noise-reduction seems to have been used more aggressively. Nevertheless, this is still an AM radio broadcast of a symphony orchestra. The much-discussed electronic tone, used in only a portion of the second movement, can barely be heard.

In his 1947 revision, Barber replaced the electronic tone with an E-flat clarinet, and removed the dedication, thereby eliminating all extramusical association; the first movement was tightened, giving it more focus, while an eerie epilogue was added to the finale, just before the affirmative conclusion. This epilogue adds an interesting dimension, although the movement as a whole remains the weakest portion of the symphony, with a good deal of pointless “noodling” and empty bluster. But at this point Barber was content enough with his revision to include it on the aforementioned London/Decca recording of 1950, featuring works conducted by the composer. That performance makes a strong case for the work, although nowhere near as convincingly as the recent recordings conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos or by Marin Alsop on Naxos. Also included on the WHRA set is a sizable portion of Barber’s rehearsal of the revised version with the Boston Symphony in 1951. It is certainly interesting to hear. Although he claimed to have the personal projection of “a baby skunk,” Barber clearly knew what he wanted, and was able to express himself forcefully, although he sounds rather priggish in the process.

Die Natali is Barber’s Christmas piece, composed in 1960 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose performance the day after the premiere is heard here. In creating his medley of holiday favorites, Barber’s chief concern seemed to be the avoidance of cliché, and in this he succeeded admirably. I know of no other work of its genre that is so tasteful and sophisticated, both musically and expressively. Charles Munch and the orchestra offer a lovely, sensitive performance, and the 1960 FM broadcast provides better sound quality than most of the recordings in this compilation.
Prayers of Kierkegaard is considered by many, myself included, to be Barber’s greatest work. Another piece written for the Boston Symphony, it is a profoundly haunting evocation of spiritual feelings both ancient and modern, experienced virtually simultaneously. This first performance is one of the more valuable ones in the set: Although the Boston Cecilia Society Chorus seemed to have real difficulty with the work’s harmonic language, about which Barber expressed considerable dissatisfaction, the lengthy soprano solo in the second section, composed with Leontyne Price’s voice in mind, is sung magnificently by her. Though often relegated to a member of the soprano section, the solo here takes on the grand stature of a passionate operatic aria, yet without upsetting the work’s overall expressive balance. Robert Shaw’s performance with the Atlanta Symphony or Andrew Schenck’s with the Chicago Symphony are essential acquisitions, but this one is an indispensable secondary reading, simply for Price’s glorious contribution.

Another performance of particular interest is the 1941 world premiere of Barber’s Violin Concerto, played by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Spalding’s performance is impassioned, and his reading of the third movement is remarkably proficient, especially in light of the work’s unfamiliarity at the time, although the sound quality is quite compromised. But the chief point of interest here is that it is another “original version,” performed prior to subsequent revisions. In this case the revisions are relatively modest, amounting to a tightening of each movement, but it is interesting to note the composer’s high standards, as he continued to eliminate anything he found superfluous, even after a work’s premiere.

The set also includes the premiere of the revised Violin Concerto, featuring violinist Ruth Posselt and the Boston Symphony, under Koussevitzky’s direction. Posselt’s rendition of the solo part is excellent, and the performance is decent overall, especially the third movement. But a flagrant wrong note in the bass section of the orchestra (I do not have a score at hand) provides a bit of a jolt during the first movement. This performance is also included on the Pristine disc, where the sound quality is somewhat better.

The Capricorn Concerto is one of Barber’s weakest and least convincing pieces—a shameless imitation of Stravinsky. But the taut performance he conducted for a radio broadcast, featuring “Mitch” Miller as oboe soloist, along with flautist Julius Baker and trumpet player Harry Freistadt, makes the best case for it.

Although I seem to be in the minority among critics, I have always found Barber’s Cello Concerto to be overly discursive and unfocused (it might have benefitted from the “tightening” he applied to other works). Nevertheless it has some lovely thematic ideas and an especially beautiful slow movement. The performance here is taken from that composer-conducted recording made in London in 1950. Therefore the sound quality is superior to many of the earlier broadcast recordings. The soloist is Zara Nelsova, a superb cellist comparable to the best of her generation, although she never achieved the prominence of her male counterparts. Her performance here is extraordinary.
The Cello Sonata appeared a decade earlier than the Concerto, composed shortly after Barber’s graduation from the Curtis Institute. It was written for Orlando Cole, a close friend from Curtis whom the composer consulted frequently while he was working on it. Although the Sonata reveals the strong influence of Brahms, I prefer it to the Concerto, as I find it a more sincere and intimate work. Dating from 1932, it has gone on to become a classic of the cello and piano repertoire. Cole performs it here, accompanied by Vladimir Sokoloff, from a concert that took place at Curtis in 1973. As such it is something of a retrospective reading, played with solid conviction and technical precision. Cole offers a brief spoken reminiscence of Barber before the performance.
Cole was also the cellist of the Curtis String Quartet in the premieres of Barber’s Quartet and Dover Beach, as well as on the composer’s own recording of the latter piece. The reading of the String Quartet heard here is another that offers the insight of an “original version.” Performed with fervent intensity at a Curtis concert in 1938, the work was still new, without the significant revisions that altered its entire shape. Although the famous “Adagio” movement remained unchanged (he had written to Cole on the day he completed it, “It is a knock-out!”), both the first and third movement underwent significant revision. The first movement was originally much longer and looser in its treatment of the material. The third movement, now essentially a brief recapitulation of the first movement, was originally based on entirely different—and remarkably uninteresting—material. As odd as the revised Quartet’s overall form may be, the work is better without the original finale.

Like the Capricorn Concerto, the four Excursions for piano solo represent another one of Barber’s less successful efforts at broadening his expressive range—in this case, an attempt to adapt vernacular American styles to his own purposes. And, like the Commando March (all three pieces were composed in 1943-44), it creates the impression of an overly fastidious venture into more “macho” territory. Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny recorded the work for Columbia in 1950. His performance is tasteful and technically flawless, although it matches Barber in its complete absence of a truly American vernacular flavor.

Another of Barber’s “outside the box” efforts is Souvenirs, an affectionate evocation of the atmosphere of the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel in New York, shortly before World War I. This context was closer to Barber’s own realm of experience, and the piece is successful on its own terms. Originally written as a diversion for piano, four hands, it was subsequently choreographed as a ballet, and was transcribed variously for a single pianist, for two pianos, and for orchestra. The piano duo Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale recorded the two-piano version for Columbia in 1952. Their reading is rather brusque and gruff, driven a little too hard. A much more tasteful and effective performance (of the original version) was recorded by John Browning and Leonard Slatkin for RCA in 1991.

Barber composed his setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem Dover Beach when he was 21, and it may be considered his first truly great work. His evocation of the high-minded despair inherent in the poem, and its expression of yearning for the security of the past are themes that would recur throughout his career. Barber, a trained baritone, recorded the work with the Curtis String Quartet in 1935 for RCA Victor. That recording has been readily available through many reissues over the past decades. I suppose that some may prefer more recent recordings, such as Thomas Hampson’s on the DGG set of Barber’s songs. But this early recording, which comes through with surprising clarity, is my favorite, perhaps for sentimental reasons. But hearing the composer project the feelings expressed in the work through a vehicle as personal as his own voice cannot be duplicated.

One of Barber’s most enduring successes is his setting of James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and we are treated to three different performances of that work. I must admit that of all the performances on this set the one that excited me the most to encounter, and the one I was most eager to hear, was the performance of Knoxville in its original scoring for full symphony orchestra, sung by Eileen Farrell, and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Taken from a 1949 live broadcast, the sound quality is pretty bad. Nevertheless, the performance is fascinating. For one reason, Eileen Farrell had the most beautiful soprano voice I’ve ever heard, and to experience that voice in this very familiar work is thrilling. What versatility! And together with the large orchestra, the impact is extraordinarily dramatic, although I am not arguing that this is the “right” way to hear it. There have been many fine performances of Knoxville, and I’m not about to call this my favorite version. But it is definitely one I am glad to have.

Interesting as a curiosity is a live performance by Eleanor Steber taken from a 1958 Carnegie Hall recital, with pianist Edward Biltcliffe. Knoxville was written for Steber, and she offered a beautiful performance, but with piano accompaniment I would expect only Steber fanatics to be interested. Another curiosity is a lovely reading by Leontyne Price, from a 1959 performance with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Schippers. But her commercial recording from 1968 with the New Philharmonia under the same conductor is another one of the best performances of the piece, rendering this one, like the Steber, somewhat superfluous.

During the mid-1940s Barber orchestrated several of his better-known songs. Featured here are “Sure, on This Shining Night,” “Nocturne,” and “I Hear an Army,” sung by Jennie Tourel in a 1945 broadcast. The performances may have been good, but, unfortunately, there is severe audio distortion at melodic highpoints, which forfeits any potential listening pleasure. 

The set concludes with two spoken items of memorabilia. One is a 6-minute commentary by Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber’s longtime partner, on the occasion of the latter’s 70th birthday celebration at the Curtis Institute. Menotti recalls how warmly he had been embraced by Barber’s family while the two were still Curtis students. He also mentions Barber’s intense devotion to the music of Brahms, of which Menotti had been completely ignorant before they met, Italy never having been receptive to either Brahms or to German Lieder in general. These were milestone discoveries for Menotti. This reminiscence is followed by a 10-minute interview of Barber by James Fassett, during the intermission of the New York Philharmonic concert in 1958, when Mitropoulos conducted Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance—a performance included in this set. Barber talks about his impressions of Greece, and how his sense of that culture was incorporated into his Medea music.
In summary, a must for committed Barber aficionados; overkill perhaps for others. 

“SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography” By Don A. Hennessee

SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography. By Don A. Hennessee. 404 pp. Westport, CT: Green­wood Press, 1985. $39.95.

Don A. Hennessee is variously described both as “author” and “compiler” of this book. The latter term is far more appropriate because there is no evidence of true “authorship” here: no discussion, elucidation, or analysis based on a study of the composer’s body of work; no attempt to distill essential thematic issues for the benefit of the less experienced listener; no effort to delve into biographical matters in order to isolate personal themes that might have some bearing on the composer’s work; no point of view whatever. This “bio-bibliography” is essen­tially a book written by a computer; the human contribution is limited to secretarial matters. We know that Mr. Hennessee is Librarian Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, but for all one gleans from this book he could easily be no more than a research assistant who has spent hours collecting entries from the Reader’s Guide, without ever having heard a note of music.

The body of the book comprises:

  1. Biography—10 pages
  2. Works and Performances (a complete list of works, with information on premieres and other “selected” performances)—70 pages
  3. Discography—47 pages
  4. Bibliography (excerpts from criticism concerning Barber and his music)—236 pages.

The brief biography, a model of timidity and lack of conviction, begins, “There is no way to predict the place of Samuel Barber in American music fifty or one hundred years from now.” (How’s that for an opener? We’re not taking any chances.) “It is possible that he may be completely forgotten.” (Anything is possible. Can’t go wrong there.) “More likely, however, he will be remembered by scholars and musicians as a composer with integrity, and his works will continue to be performed, some retaining their places in the repertoire of orchestras, opera companies, dance and ballet troupes, and soloists.” (Not too rash to assume, I suppose, that some of his works will continue to be performed, considering that about half are already in the standard repertoire. This really draws you in, doesn’t it?) Ten pages later, Hennessee concludes, “Three years after his death his music still appears frequently on programs from coast to coast and abroad. What is the secret? Perhaps it is a very simple one: to the average concert-goer, his music is listenable, it has beauty and can be understood. We can still be moved by Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and probably Samuel Barber would ask no more than this.” (Than what? That we can still be moved by Knoxville? He thinks that’s all Barber would ask? He’s got to be kidding!) These feeble platitudes encase a biographical sketch that contains nothing not al­ready known or easily accessible to anyone with enough interest in Samuel Barber to pick up the book in the first place. I will make the bold assumption that Mr. Hennessee knows some­thing about Barber’s music and likes it, because the money in writing books about modern composers is too small to motivate anyone. But one error—the attribution of The Lovers to 1979 (instead of 1971) and the consequent misplacement of it in the biographical overview—suggests that Mr. Hennessee has a rather tenuous grasp of the basic facts.

The Works and Performances section and the Discography do serve some modest but useful purposes, but, aside from the premieres, no criteria are given for the inclusion of “se­lected other performances.” The discography inevitably has its share of minor errors and omis­sions. Some entries are described in great detail, with duration, author of program notes, date of recording, etc., while others are given with very little information—even currently or recently available discs that are easy to find. Not terribly important, perhaps, but annoying nevertheless.

Obviously, the book’s major contribution is the compendium of critical comments. (Those of us who can enjoy sitting and reading music reviews for hours on end can appreciate something like this, but I suspect it is a specialized taste.) Again, the compilation is not “complete,” by any means; yet an awful lot of entries are included that offer absolutely nothing of any value or use to anyone whatsoever. It seems to me that “complete” should mean complete and that “selected” should mean selected for potential value to reader, researcher, etc. What is the value of an entry like, “For Barber’s Anthony O’Daly, Mr. Fountain let his group sing out dramatically.”? That is an entire entry. Or one that states, simply, “The program was featured principally by the music of Samuel Barber.” (Quite a sentence, isn’t it?) Again, one searches for evidence of an active intelligence behind all this. The entries in this section are grouped according to particular works. Then, within each group the entries are presented alphabetically, according to the author’s name. If someone wanted to read the critical reactions to a work like, say, Barber’s cello sonata, over the 50 years or so since it was composed (probably the type of item of curiosity which this book is most suited to satisfy), wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to present those critical comments chronologically, so that the reader might quickly sense the ef­fect of the passage of time and greater familiarity? But instead, because the entries are listed alphabetically, a 1958 entry follows a 1974 entry which follows a 1940 entry, etc. The reviews of the original version of Antony and Cleopatra are mixed with the reviews of the revised ver­sion, so that the marked change in critical reaction to the two versions is concealed. Or, a 1976 entry follows a 1980 entry by the same writer because the entries by a single writer are alpha­betized by title, preventing the reader from gaining a sense of a critic’s changing position over time. After all, in the case of a veteran like Irving Kolodin, for example, this is another point of interest. In lieu of a more useful organization, however, there is a busy cross-reference system that connects every work to every disc to every review excerpt—very neat, but not that necessary, I think. There are some reviews from foreign countries, especially England, but very few from elsewhere; but we know that Barber’s music has been played abroad frequently, including in Russia. It would be interesting to see what critics in other countries had to say. Reading through the review excerpts does give one quite a few glimpses of critical stupidity: the consis­tent reference to “serial procedures” in some of Barber’s music, for example. One would expect most critics to know that the use of a theme containing all 12 notes is not a “serial procedure.” One writer even talks about Barber’s use of “post-Webern” techniques. Unbelievable! We are also made aware of some nice examples of plagiarism from one Ph.D. dissertation to another. One more gripe—for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, the entity that “processed” all this material consistently changed the word “harmonies” to “harmonics”—dozens of times. Why? The two words mean very different things.

I don’t mean to be gunning down Mr. Hennessee here. It’s just that this is a non-book, the product of an age in which data-processing has become a major virtuoso activity and in which the exercise of knowledge, intelligence, and thoughtful judgment as means of providing com­municative insight have become increasingly obsolete. The best that can be said for this “bio­bibliography” is that it may be a time-saver for someone who one day wants to write a book about Samuel Barber.