BARBER Piano Concerto. Essays for Orchestra: Nos. 1-3

BARBER Piano Concerto.  Essays for Orchestra: Nos. 1-3 ● Daniel Kawka, cond; National SO of RAI; Giampaolo Nuti (pn) ● STRADIVARIUS STR-33814 (58:36)

As most of Samuel Barber’s music has been gradually entering the active repertoire during the past three decades, the works programmed on this new release have been amply represented on recording—and on very fine ones at that. Leonard Slatkin has given us beautifully eloquent recordings of the three Essays, while others have featured one or another of these pieces individually. And the Piano Concerto—perhaps the only new piano concerto to enter the active repertoire within the last 50 years—offers splendid alternatives from which it is almost impossible to choose. Do you want the brilliant first recording, with John Browning fresh from the premiere, accompanied by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, or Browning’s later recording, after his having lived with the work for many years, accompanied by Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony, or maybe the inexpensive Naxos release, highly praised in the press, featuring pianist Stephen Prutsman? And there are other excellent recordings as well.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to dismiss this new release. What are its strengths? Most notably the quality of its recorded sound. The technology of recording classical music has improved so much during the past 25 years that is rarely necessary today to comment on the sound quality. I wonder how others will react, but I find that the sound quality of this recording reaches a standard that is unprecedented in this repertoire. I have never heard such astonishing clarity and transparency, yet without sacrificing richness of sonority. In many performances of Barber’s orchestral music, textures are opaque and muddy; not here! Contrapuntal and motivic details emerge that have never been audible before. 

Daniel Kawka’s interpretations reflect the fact that this music has become familiar to musicians, and doesn’t need to be re-conceptualized from scratch by each conductor who programs it. The three Essaysrepresent the composer at three different phases of his compositional career, and each is played beautifully here. Florentine pianist Giampaolo Nuti embraces the Concerto with vigorous commitment and confidence, unfazed by any of the technical challenges posed by this enormously difficult work. Like many of Barber’s purely instrumental compositions, it is perhaps not among his most distinguished creative efforts, but it is an exciting and ingratiating work nonetheless—and the lovely slow movement, which is a particular favorite of many listeners, is simply ravishing.

Is there anything at all to temper one’s enthusiasm for this release? Well, the RAI Orchestra, though a far more polished and proficient ensemble than it was 30-40 years ago, does not measure up to the standard set by the finest American orchestras that have previously recorded this music: Instrumental solos are not always played with the utmost refinement, while the violins reveal some discomfort with passages that reach the highest registers in the outer movements of the Concerto. However, for me the virtues of the recording outweigh these minor lapses. As one who does not feel the need to collect multiple recorded performances of the same repertoire, I can assure the reader that I will not be discarding this release.

I cannot refrain from commenting with bittersweet amusement on the program notes by Alfonso Alberti. Like so many Europeans, he cannot seem to escape a view of music history as a conveyer-belt following a linear track from styles of the past to those of the future—a view that has been abandoned by many American musicologists, but seems to persist in Europe. This is clear from Alberti’s opening sentence: “It seems that some music looks ahead, other music looks back and still other music is fine where it is and does not look anywhere.” Obviously he must strain a great deal in order to “explain” Barber’s place in music history, to which he devotes much of his commentary, while failing to address the essential character of the music itself, which is of primary importance in understanding this composer’s works. Using as points of comparison such utterly irrelevant figures as Ives, Cowell, and Cage, he seems to be totally unaware that, rather than an isolated anachronism, Barber was simply the most successful and best known representative of a traditionalist movement that has persisted from Howard Hanson on up through Lowell Liebermann and other still younger figures. 

BARBER: Motetto. Two Choruses, Op. 8. Agnus Dei, Op. 11. Heaven-Haven, Op. 13, No. 1. Sure on This Shining Night, Op. 13, No. 3. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15. Reincarnations, Op. 16. Two Choruses, Op. 42. Easter Chorale

BARBER Motetto. Two Choruses, Op. 8. Agnus Dei, Op. 11. Heaven-Haven, Op. 13, No. 1. Sure on This Shining Night, Op. 13, No. 3. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15. Reincarnations, Op. 16. Two Choruses, Op. 42. Easter Chorale. Happy Birthday, Sam Barber ● Eric Banks, cond; The Esoterics ● TERPSICHORE CD-1110 (53:28)

Samuel Barber’s choral music includes many of his finest works. Indeed, if his two large works for chorus and orchestra—Prayers of Kierkegaard and the unjustifiably neglected The Lovers—are added to most of the music found on this new release, the result ensures Barber’s place among the pantheon of great composers. Therefore it is gratifying to see a large portion of this body of work addressed by The Esoterics, a highly acclaimed a cappella ensemble based in Seattle. Founded during the early 1990s and conducted by Eric Banks, the group (The Esoterics, incidentally, is treated as a singular noun) specializes in meticulously shaped performances of a broad range of recent music for a cappella choir. Their (its?) ambitious efforts have resulted in much attention and many awards. This appears to be The Esoterics’ twelfth recording.

Now let’s take a closer look at the contents of this program: The core of Barber’s a cappella output comprises the three Reincarnations from the late 1930s, the Op. 8 Choruses (“The Virgin Martyrs” and “Let Down the Bars O Death”) from the mid 1930s, and the Op. 42 Choruses (“Twelfth Night” and “To Be Sung on the Water”) from 1968. All this music is simply gorgeous, exhibiting the exquisite emotional sensitivity that was Barber’s great gift, the contents divided chiefly between poems concerned with romantic love, and non-liturgical poetry that deals with spiritual or religious sentiments. Although these deeply moving settings are not widely known among the general musical public, they are standard fare among America’s many choirs, as well as quite a few in England.

However, best known of all is Agnus Dei, the composer’s own 1967 arrangement of his Adagio for Strings. Quite effective as an a cappella setting, it has become a classic in its own right, and is a favorite among today’s choruses. “Heaven-Haven” and “Sure On This Shining Night” belong to the Op. 13 group of four solo songs, from the late 1930s. The latter of the two is the most popular of Barber’s songs, and he subsequently arranged it for chorus with piano; he arranged the first for chorus a cappellaA Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map is a profoundly moving setting from 1940 of an anti-war poem by Stephen Spender, scored for male chorus with timpani. This is all Samuel Barber at his best. But as The Esoterics is strictly an a cappella group, the piano part of “Sure On This Shining Night” and the timpani part of A Stopwatch … are rendered vocally (!) by portions of the choir.

Then there is a short, inconsequential Easter Chorale from 1964. Happy Birthday, Sam Barber is simply a re-wording of a bagatelle intended in 1969 as a gift for Eugene Ormandy. It is skillfully crafted, but I could bear to listen to it only once. Its inclusion here is an acknowledgment of the composer’s recent hundredth birthday.

Likely to raise curious eyebrows is the piece called Motetto. This is a group of three settings from the Book of Job, composed in 1930, with the addition of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” dating from 1938, as the third of four sections. Evidently at one point Barber had intended the work in this form, but it was not published during his lifetime, and did not appear on his list of works. This raises a complicated issue: Barber’s output is relatively small (48 works) and most of them have been gradually entering the standard repertoire since his death thirty years ago. Few composers of the 20th century have enjoyed such comprehensive acceptance (most are lucky if a handful of their works achieves any sort of immortality). Thus it is understandable that musicians—and the publishers who sell the stuff—might wish there were more of it. At times calling to mind “the goose that laid the golden eggs,” there has been a revival of juvenilia and other pieces that the composer omitted from his official canon. But an issue of musicological ethics is involved here. Brahms destroyed those works he did not feel met his own standards of quality. But not all composers are so thorough. Do we assume that a composer selects those pieces to represent his body of creative work at random? Do we assume that he was unable to exercise wise judgment in such matters? Do we take upon ourselves the right to pick over that which he left behind for our own purposes? There are legal and copyright issues involved, but somehow this game of second-guessing is taking place with Barber’s music, and what has become clear to me is that every one of these “discoveries” was suppressed for a reason: none meets the standards set by his acknowledged canon (I do not include here the controversial case of the Symphony No. 2, which I feel does live up to those standards.) Motetto is a case in point: This is remarkably ordinary music that rarely rises above the most conventional choral fodder. “God’s Grandeur” utilizes a technique that appears in similar form in the second of the Reincarnations. Barber may have felt it redundant to include both. I don’t believe that such second-guessing is fair to Barber or to the legacy he chose to leave as his body of work.

Moving to the quality of the performances: The choir boasts impeccable intonation and balance, and the acoustical ambience is rich, spacious, and reverberant—perhaps too much so for some tastes. Most impressive is Agnus Dei, which the group has probably performed more frequently than any of the other pieces. It is the most shapely performance of the work that I have ever heard, with exquisite phrasing and voice-leading. Most of the other performances are quite polished and refined as well, if not as strikingly so. The only real disappointment—and it is a big one—are the Reincarnations. The interpretation of these settings strikes me as wrong-headed from beginning to end. The first song (“Mary Hynes”) comes off best of the three: Light and fleet, in the manner of an old English madrigal, it is rendered here metronomically, to rather mechanical effect. The second, “Anthony O Daly,” is funereal and dirge-like in character. This too is sung metronomically, and with virtually flat dynamics. Although the conductor’s program notes refer to the way it “[builds] to a heart-rending climax,” to my ears there is no build-up, so that the climax comes and goes without notice. Then, most disappointing is the third, “The Coolin,” one of the most beautiful a cappella settings I know. The tempo is inappropriately brisk and mechanical, allowing no opportunity to shape the poignant harmonic nuances, calling to mind the image of someone trampling a delicate flower garden in workboots. Reincarnations has been recorded a number of times, but no rendition I’ve heard can match the precision and sensitivity of the Gregg Smith Singers on an Everest LP from 1965.

Then, finally, we come to the rash decision made by Dr. Banks to render the piano part of “Sure On This Shining Night” and the timpani part of A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map by voices. Well, one may be momentarily struck by the first of these, but one adjusts without too much difficulty. However, when the latter piece begins, “duhduhduh di-di …,” an element is introduced into a profoundly tragic setting that can seem incongruously comical—especially later in the piece when the timpani’s upward glissandos are rendered. I can’t understand why Banks couldn’t bring the requisite three timpani into the studio.

“SAMUEL BARBER REMEMBERED: A Centenary Tribute” Ed., P. Dickinson; “THE SADDEST MUSIC EVER WRITTEN: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings” By Thomas Larson


SAMUEL BARBER REMEMBERED: A Centenary Tribute. Edited by Peter Dickinson. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2010. 198 pp. $49.95.

THE SADDEST MUSIC EVER WRITTEN: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. By Thomas Larson. New York: Pegasus Books, 2010. 262 pp. $26.95.

Until recently the published scholarship on Samuel Barber was extremely limited. An important gap was filled by the publication of Barbara Heyman’s Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music (Oxford University Press, 1992). Heyman presented a richly researched, painstakingly detailed account of Barber’s life, as well as a thoroughly documented survey of his works. Yet missing from this large volume was a palpable sense of Barber as a person, and, arguably more important, a critical assessment of his body of work. I attempted to provide the latter in the chapter on Barber in my book Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow Press, 2004). But now, in commemoration of the composer’s centennial this year, two new books have appeared that fill in many of the gaps that have remained. I daresay that today the reader who seeks a comprehensive understanding of Samuel Barber, the man and the composer, can derive just that from these four books, which complement each other with relatively little overlap.
Peter Dickinson is an English musicologist who has written a great deal about American composers and their music. Samuel Barber Remembered is built around a series of interviews that Dickinson conducted for the BBC, in preparing a memorial tribute, shortly after the composer’s death in 1981. Dickinson interviewed Barber’s closest friends, other American composers whose careers ran parallel to his, as well as colleagues who worked closely with him in other capacities. These interviews are supplemented by two chapters written by Dickinson himself: one detailing Barber’s formative years, enriched by reminiscences of those—not necessarily musicians—who knew him as a youth in suburban Philadelphia; the other discussing the reception of his music in England (which appeared essentially to parallel the attitudinal shifts toward his music in the United States). There are also transcripts of three of the few interviews granted by Barber himself: one done in 1949 by James Fassett, a well-known commentator and host for CBS Radio during the middle decades of the 20th century; one from 1978 with Robert Sherman, still active as a radio producer in New York; and one considered to be the composer’s last interview, by the distinguished New York Times critic Allan Kozinn in 1979, when Barber was already facing his final illness. This interview was published in High Fidelity shortly after his death.
The cumulative impact of all these interviews and essays reveals a significant insight into Barber’s personality and character. True, those who are familiar with his body of work, and with the various program notes that have accompanied performances and recordings of his music, are not likely to be surprised by the picture that emerges. But those many listeners who have heard only a handful of his works, perhaps only recently, and have not been reading about him for years, and wish to know more, will find this volume enormously illuminating. One reads the depiction of a hypersensitive, rather shy, and somewhat melancholy individual, born into a highly cultivated—almost aristocratic—family that nurtured his remarkable talent from the time of its early manifestation. With an aunt who was an internationally acclaimed opera star, and whose husband was a respected composer himself, Barber was given every advantage, including access to some of the most influential figures in the music world. Demonstrating as early as his teen years an ability to charm and ingratiate potential patrons and others in positions of influence, he achieved national recognition by the time he was in his mid 20s. For the next 25 years his works were championed by the foremost performers of the time, even by those—such as Arturo Toscanini and Vladimir Horowitz—who had little interest in modern music in general. Counseled by his uncle to remain true to his inner voice regardless of changing fashions, he was not by nature aggressively contentious or “pushy,” and simply disregarded the various modernist trends that were germinating around him and came to dominate the new music scene during the 1960s and 70s. Following his uncle’s advice, he treated his compositions as vehicles for his inner emotional life, and by so doing found resonance among a large portion of the cultivated musical public, although many of his colleagues were contemptuous of the “old-fashioned” language he embraced, and the apparent ease with which he attained such success. Yet like most composers who have become identified with a single work that seems to pre-empt the rest of their outputs, Barber came to detest the ubiquitous Adagio. As a defense against the harsh realities of a highly competitive field, he developed a somewhat “snobbish,” condescending manner and a sharp wit that could be quite cutting toward those who offended or challenged him. However, the virtually untrammeled acclaim he achieved during his 20s, 30s, and 40s did not prepare him for some of the failures and disappointments that occurred later on. Chief among them was the international public humiliation he faced when the opera he had composed for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center was roundly condemned by the critics; the gradual dissolution during the 1960s of the intimate relationship he had shared with Gian Carlo Menotti from the time of their mid-teens; and the relinquishment during the early 1970s of the handsome estate they had inhabited together for some thirty years. Devastated by these profound defeats, Barber’s creativity diminished as he sank into the alcoholism and depression of his final years. A tone of whiny self-pity emerges from the final interview with Allan Kozinn.
Of course, most revealing are the interviews with Menotti himself, as well as the one with Charles Turner, a close friend for many years. But fascinating in other ways are the interviews with composers Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and Virgil Thomson, which really reflect more about them than about Barber. Most gracious is Schuman, who, in his “musical statesman” persona, provides the perspective of a respected colleague. On the other hand, Copland emphasizes that he and Barber traveled in different circles, and acknowledges only limited familiarity with his body of work. Without expressing explicit disdain, he repeatedly describes Barber as “well settled,” juxtaposing his lack of interest in “trying to add a new page to the history of music” against his own alignment with “the far-out people in New York.” Referring to their earlier days, he recalled, “He wasn’t carrying out what you would have thought a young composer would have wanted to do … He wasn’t ambitious to strike out on new paths, make a fuss, and upset audiences.” Most remarkable is the attitude of Virgil Thomson, who claims familiarity with only a handful of Barber’s works. His comments are surprisingly snide, petulant, and cynical, crediting Barber in only the most begrudging terms. (“I think that his idea of a successful musical work .. was something that could be played … for the subscription public of the Philadelphia Orchestra.”) Asked—as were many of the interviewees—about the “meaning” of the famous Adagio, he characterized it as “a detailed love scene, … [with] an awful lot of rubbing around!” while admitting that he had never even heard the full string quartet from which the Adagio was extracted.
Thomas Larson’s is a very different sort of study and a most unusual book. Its initial stimulus seems to have been a “contest” presented by the BBC, inviting submissions for the “world’s saddest music.” Evidently, Barber’s Adagio won by a landslide. Younger readers may not be aware of the role that this music has played over the years outside the concert hall. The Adagio was performed (or played on recording) in response to the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco, Gian Carlo Menotti, the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, the victims of 9/11, and the victims of the tsunami in Haiti. It was used in such films as The Elephant Man, Platoon, Lorenzo’s Oil,El Norte, and others. It has even been used parodistically on TV shows such as South ParkThe Simpsons, and Seinfeld. So Larson—a general writer, rather than a musicologist—has undertaken a wide-ranging analysis and commentary on this single work. Not only does his discussion include a detailed analysis of the Adagio itself, a biographical overview of the composer, and a history of the Adagio’s role as “America’s quintessential elegy,” “the Pietà of music,” “among the most moving expressions of grief in any art,” which “embodies Barber’s melancholia more completely than any of his other compositions.” (One wonders how Larson reacts to Virgil Thomson’s interpretation, noted above.) He goes on to speculate about the possible significance of Barber’s homosexuality on the expressive content of the work, and about Barber’s place in American gay culture of the time. Larson also discusses the role played by the Adagio in his own life, not to mention the hypothesized roles it may have played in his own parents’ lives. It even includes a thoughtful discussion of the Adagio’s place within American culture and its relationship to the American character. (Those readers who objected when I dared to inject a social comment or two into an opera review a few years ago are not likely to appreciate the free-wheeling breadth of Larson’s speculations.)
I must admit that early in the book I was put off by some infelicitous writing and a few musical gaffes that identify Larson as an “amateur,” as well as by the way he jumps around back and forth from one perspective to another. I also—as will a number of readers of this magazine, I suspect—found myself thinking of other contenders for the “saddest music” distinction that were overlooked. (In addition to my own idiosyncratic selections, the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”—surely a worthy contender for the title—is never even mentioned.) However, I gradually became increasingly sympathetic to Larson’s thinking and respectful of the challenge he had set for himself. I was also impressed by his citation of the importance of the late cantata, The Lovers, a masterpiece that has yet to be recognized, and which disproves the often-encountered assertion that Barber composed nothing of value after Antony and Cleopatra. By the end, when he discusses America’s attitude toward grief, and presents the Adagio as representing a different view of America from Copland’s equally ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man, I felt deeply moved. “The power of positive thinking is also the power of denial, which cancels the need to mourn, a feeling common with the generation after that of the Second World War…. After the war and with a booming economy, the somber mood quickly fell out of favor. Since 1945, American mourning has too often been ‘lite’…. Hint at, but avoid true grief. Don’t get maudlin either. We’ve got the weather and the sports on tap. The Copland-Barber divide reminds us how precisely sculpted the emotional content of our culture is….” Whether or not one thinks one agrees with his conclusions, Larson leaves us with much to reflect upon. As personal as it may be, this book is as important and valuable to a deep understanding of Samuel Barber as are the other studies cited earlier.

BARBER: Piano Sonata. Excursions. Nocturne. Marion BAUER: Three Impressions, Op. 10. Pine-Trees, Op. 12, No. 3. Six Preludes, Op. 15.

BARBER Piano Sonata. ExcursionsNocturne. Marion BAUER Three Impressions, Op. 10. Pine-Trees, Op. 12, No. 3. Six Preludes, Op. 15 • Stephen Beus (pn) • ENDEAVOR CLASSICS END-1017 (57:22)

This is a recent release of more than passing interest. Although there is no shortage of recordings of Barber’s Piano Sonata, few of them really make a convincing statement of the work. Stephen Beus definitely does, and for that alone, the recording warrants attention. He also injects some blood and vitality into the Excursions, which usually sound anemic and overly fastidious. And the gorgeously Scriabinesque Nocturne he plays beautifully.

The CD is also noteworthy for its sampling of music by Marion Bauer (1882-1955), who, I learned, rather to my surprise, appears not to have been related to her near-contemporary Harold Bauer. Born in Washington State, she received a thorough musical training, and, in addition to composing, was active as an advocate of 20th-century music, a critic, and a writer of several respected texts on the subject. She taught on the faculty of New York University for many years, and elsewhere as well. The pieces on this recording date from the 1910s; I am sorry to report that they are not terribly interesting. Falling within the general category of Debussy-styled impressionism, the music offers little individual personality, although—following the opus numbers—each piece reaches out on its own a little further than the last; the more mature pieces are reasonably well-crafted within the rhetoric they inhabit. But her pieces are far overshadowed by, say, Barber’s highly nuanced and sophisticated Nocturne, which draws from much the same aesthetic; her pieces don’t even display the assurance or self-possession found in the roughly contemporaneous, Debussy-influenced piano pieces of Ernest Bloch. But since one encounters her name frequently in contemporary accounts of American musical life during the first half of the 20th century, it is interesting to hear what her own creative work sounds like. However, Stephen Beus’s muscular approach overpowers the material somewhat.

BARBER Vanessa & Interview with Barber

BARBER Vanessa • Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond; Eleanor Steber (Vanessa); Rosalind Elias (Erika); Nicolai Gedda (Anatol) et al; Ch of the Vienna State Opera; Vienna Philharmonic • ORFEO C653 0621, mono/AAD (2 CDs: 126:12) Live Broadcast: Salzburg Festival 8/16/58
& Interview with Barber (in German and English)

This recent release is an imperative acquisition for all those historically-minded collectors who have boundless interest in Samuel Barber and his opera Vanessa. That constituency is no doubt aware that this Pulitzer Prize-winning work enjoyed a successful premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in January, 1958, in a co-production with the Salzburg Festival, featuring Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, and Nicolai Gedda in the leading roles. The opera was then presented in Salzburg in August of that year, with essentially the same cast. The only significant replacements were Ira Malaniuk instead of Regina Resnik as The Old Baroness, and the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Philharmonic instead of the Met equivalents. The Salzburg performance was well received by the public, but the opera was trashed brutally by the European critics, under the sway of haughty, elitist notions of “artistic progress”—a self-congratulatory posture that was dominating Europe at the time, but hadn’t quite taken hold as yet in the United States. Even Mitropoulos’s intense advocacy of the work was held suspect, as ulterior motives were sought. 

Today Vanessa is recognized by most enthusiasts of American opera as one of its masterpieces, and no one who professes an interest in the genre or who is receptive to Barber’s music in general should remain ignorant of it. Performed with increasing frequency these days (I am looking forward to tonight’s presentation by the New York City Opera), the work is available in a number of fine recordings, each potentially attractive to a different sub-group of listeners: There is the magnificent Metropolitan Opera version, recorded shortly after the premiere, and re-issued on an RCA compact disc set that is still, I believe, available; a perfectly adequate, budget-priced recording on Naxos, featuring excellent if little-known soloists; and a stupendous full-priced modern recording on Chandos, featuring Christine Brewer, Susan Graham, and William Burden in the leading roles, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Chorus and Orchestra. (Reviews of each of these can be found in the Fanfare archives at or on my own Web site at So that leaves this latest release for the constituency noted in the first sentence of this review. 

As a recording derived from the broadcast of a live event that took place some fifty years ago, the sound quality is quite good—better than one might expect; but it cannot pretend to rival the studio recording made several months earlier by the same principals. Are there any significant virtues to recommend this Salzburg document? Well, perhaps there is a moment or two, e.g., Steber’s “Do Not Utter a Word,” that some might find more thrillingly immediate as captured here in vivo. Beyond that, a most peculiar intermission interview with the composer is included, conducted by “Dr. Heinzheimer” (presumably Hans, erstwhile editorial director of Barber’s publisher, G. Schirmer), presented in both German and English. The interview is amusingly stilted, as Barber’s predictable responses to Heinzheimer’s routine questions were obviously written in advance, then translated into German, and delivered timorously by the composer in both languages. The other bonus is a generously detailed program note by Gottfried Kraus, which includes an extensive and most revealing excerpt from a contemporaneous review by the leading Viennese critic Heinrich Kralik. What is so fascinating is the patronizing way Kralik attempted to defend the work, by insisting that there is some value to an opera “for the audience, not for the literary few.” He argued on behalf of “appealing works that can hold their own for a few years ….” and felt that Vanessa “constitutes a more than acceptable and, indeed, a successful example of what I mean.” 

There are many ironies here. For example, instead of “holding [its] own for a few years,” Vanessa has been growing increasingly popular with the passage of time, and today is produced with relative frequency. Furthermore, though the work reminded initial audiences of Puccini and Strauss, the knowledgeable listener today knows that the composer it resembles more than anyone else is Samuel Barber—specifically those later (post-1950) works that display his neo-romantic expression at full maturity. (When will people learn that new music rooted in a tradition will upon initial acquaintance inevitably resemble other works from that tradition; it takes some familiarity before most listeners are able to grasp such a work’s own identity.) An additional irony is that despite Vanessa’s undeniable connection to the late-romantic tradition, there are still many operagoers today who find the work to be “dissonant” and borderline “atonal,” requiring some patience and persistence before its virtually uninterrupted lyricism blossoms and becomes readily apparent. This is a factor, often-overlooked, that makes the acceptance of a new opera a little more complicated than simply a matter of “giving them pretty melodies;” even many neo-romantic operas—derided by elitist critics as “pandering”—nevertheless require some familiarity before their presumed “accessibility” is apparent to the typical operagoer. It is this phenomenon, I believe, that is responsible for the near-half-century it has taken for Vanessa to really take hold. (Menotti’s preposterously shallow and foolish libretto bears some responsibility as well, but, in truth, it is the music—not the libretto—that makes or breaks an opera.) And it is those listeners who have “lived with” Vanessa for decades who have finally brought it to the brink of repertoire status. 

PERSICHETTI: Concerto for Piano, Four Hands. Piano Sonata No. 9. Sonata for Two Pianos. MENNIN: Symphony No. 7. BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

PERSICHETTI: Concerto for Piano, Four Hands. Piano Sonata No. 9. Sonata for Two Piano. Alexander Bakhchiev, Elena Sorokina, pianos. MELODIYA C10161334.

MENNIN: Symphony No. 7. BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.Leonid Kogan, violin; Ukrainian SSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pavel Kogan. MELODIYA C10164478.

That’s right, folks. The Russians have discovered American music: two records containing some of the best this country has to offer—on Melodiya! And, while, in fact, all five of these works are currently. available on American recordings, only the Barber concerto could be considered “familiar” to most music lovers. Thus, Americans can be rather impressed—if not a little shamed—by this bold, ambitious venture into a repertoire that has until now been known only to a very limited audience.

Among the many exciting aspects of these recordings is the opportunity of hearing this music performed by artists nurtured in a very different musical culture. Some of the pieces fare better than others. For example, the Barber violin concerto offers a rather international style of melodic beauty quite susceptible to the conventional, straightforward approach that might be taken by any competent violinist—certainly one of the reasons that the work has won and retained such popularity. Leonid Kogan digs in with ardent warmth. His tone is rich and smooth; were it not for several moments of sagging pitch during the first movement, the performance could be recommended without reservation. The gorgeous second movement is played as well as or better than I’ve ever heard. (The third movement is such a ridiculous incongruity that no performer can save it.) The orchestra accompanies competently and with wholehearted enthusiasm. Of course, the Stem/Bemstein performance is superb, and the Kaufman/Goehr is also; but this Kogan/Kogan rendition is in their class, and its modern recorded sound—close but rich—is an advantage.

That the Russian performance of the Barber concerto is so good is not really surprising. That their performance of the Mennin Symphony No. 7 is—that’s something else again. The work, which I would not hesitate to rank among the ten greatest American symphonies, is a formidable challenge to the precision, the musicianship—and the physical and intellectual endurance—of both conductor and orchestra. It is a work appropriate to the abilities of the partnership that commissioned and premiered it in 1963-64: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra—and of the partnership that later recorded it as well: Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony. The Chicago recording is one of the most impressive accomplishments in the discography of American music. So I must confess to having put this Ukrainian disc on the turntable with a patronizing chuckle. The fact is that the performance is nothing to laugh about. True, there are missed notes (both the Mennin and Barber are taken from live performances (coughs, applause, and all), and the ensemble is a little ragged. But this group attacks the music with such intense conviction that the cataclysmic spirit of the work comes through full force, while the coarseness of the ensemble almost enhances the ruggedness of the music. Much credit for this must be attributed to the penetrating musicianship of Pavel Kogan (son of Leonid?).

The Mennin Seventh belongs to that select group of works that leave the listener feeling that, within its particular aesthetic category, the experience of hearing it cannot possibly be topped. Another work that leaves this impression is Vincent Persichetti’s Concerto for Piano, Four Hands—though its own message is very different. While each speaks through the language of pure music, the Mennin is a Beethovenian, public raging-fist-shaking-at-the-heavens type of statement, whereas the Persichetti is an intimate Mozartean romp of intellectual delight. Both are multisectional works, each integrated into one large movement, but Mennin’s gaze has a broad sweep, while Persichetti stops often for spontaneous moments of parenthetical interest. Part of the concerto’s magic lies in the way these little digressions ultimately cohere as part of the large design. Mennin and Persichetti are often grouped together as composers, but these two works, which represent each at his very best and most characteristic, clearly demonstrate how vastly different indeed are their modes of expression.

Persichetti is often at his most profound in music of high spirits—even of mischievous humor. This all-important insight seems to have eluded pianists Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina, who misread much of the spirit of this music, while demonstrating competent pianism and evidence of good hard work. One wonders whether, during their well-intentioned preparation of this disc, the pianists had the opportunity to refer to the venerable recording of the concerto featuring the composer and his wife in what must be regarded as the definitive interpretation of this work. Bakhchiev and Sorokina open with a severe portentousness that soon becomes ponderous. Not only does this destroy the playfulness so essential to the meaning of the concerto, but it extends the length of the entire work some thirty percent beyond the composer’s intended duration, throwing relationships of tempo and structure out of kilter. Once the piece goes further along, however, the duo becomes better attuned to its momentum, and their superlative technical control enables them to highlight some details that even the virtuoso Persichetti performance misses. In all, the Russians approach the piece with such seriousness of purpose and pianistic mastery that the result is rather interesting in its way, despite the misjudgments (and much better, I might add, than the Wentworth performance, currently available on Grenadilla). But the element of spunk, manifested by a springy sort of rhythmic bounce, seems outside the Russian duo’s expressive vocabulary.

It is this trait that is also missing from Bakhchiev’s performance of Persichetti’s Piano Sonata No. 9. Of Persichetti’s twelve piano sonatas, notable for their exhaustive traversal of the full range of contemporary piano technique, the Ninth is one of the most immediately appealing. Composed during the 1950s–a fertile decade for Persichetti, when he produced the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands and literally dozens of other important works—the Ninth Sonata is a delightful essay in the sort of musical stream-of-consciousness pioneered by Roy Harris. But Persichetti carries it off with a wit and sparkle foreign to the elder composer. In its mere ten minutes or so, the sonata charts a dynamic course, suggesting a range of moods from whimsical to naughty to triumphant. American pianist Jackson Berkey has recorded the work on a remarkable direct-to-disc recital album. His rendition offers in abundance the very qualities missing from Bakhchiev’s performance, which is fluent, competent, but too reserved and a little stiff.

Of the three pieces, it is perhaps the early Sonata for Two Pianos, a somewhat less impressive work than its companions, that is accorded the best performance here. Interestingly, while Persichetti is often profound without being turgid, he is on occasion turgid without being profound. This is particularly true in his earliest pieces, when he often employed a harmonic language inappropriately harsh in relation to the musical import. This 1940 sonata must be included among those works. Yet its craggier textures and grander gestures seem better suited to the Russian duo, who manage to imbue the work with a good deal of sensitivity and vitality, highlighting its parodistic quality. Their performance compares favorably with Yarbrough and Cowan’s rendition on CRI.

Recorded sound of both discs is quite good; surfaces are adequate. I look forward to further Russian forays into the world of American music. Maybe some other countries would like to join in too. A fantasy-list of new releases begins to appear before my eyes… 

Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber: Historic Performances—1938 and 1953

Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber: Historic Performances—1938 and 1953 • Leontyne Price (sop); Samuel Barber (bar, pn) • BRIDGE 9156, mono, ADD (79:43 )

POULENC Quatre Poèmes de Paul Eluard. C’est ainsi que tu es
BARBERHermit Songs. Sleep Now. The Daisies. Nocturne. Nuvoletta
SAUGUETLa VoyanteFAURÉ Au bord de l’eau (Live: Library of Congress, 10/30/53)1
SCHUMANN, MENDELSSOHN, C.P.E. BACH, BRAHMS, SCHUBERT Six Lieder. Six Folk Song Arrangements (Broadcast: Curtis Institute, 12/26/38)2

This release presents two historical documents likely to be of interest to serious devotees of Samuel Barber and/or Leontyne Price: the complete recital at the Library of Congress where the 26-year-old Price, accompanied at the piano by Samuel Barber, gave the world premiere of the latter’s Hermit Songs, commissioned for this soprano to present on this occasion; completing the generously filled CD is one of a number of broadcast vocal recitals from the 1930s, which featured baritone Samuel Barber accompanying himself at the piano in varied programs of Lieder, along with lighter fare. However, chiefly because of their compromised sound quality, and less so because of blemishes attributable to their provenance as live performances, these are not likely to be the casual—or even serious—listener’s recorded performances of choice for the repertoire selected. Even Barber specialists may be content with the BMG/RCA release (09026-61983-2), “Leontyne Price Sings Barber,” which includes all the Barber selections from the Library of Congress recital, along with 1968 studio recordings with orchestra of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Two Scenes from Antony and Cleopatra (an especially fine recording).

What is most striking to me about the Barber performances at the Library of Congress recital is how hurriedly some of these songs are taken. Perhaps this should not be so surprising, because in initial presentations of their works to the public, composer-performers often take somewhat hasty tempos, perhaps reflecting an anxious insecurity not to try the patience of the audience by dwelling excessively on details, but rather to convey a broader sense of overall impact. It remains for later generations of performers to apply their interpretive artistry by adjusting their pacing with more attention to subtle nuances and details. Listen and compare, for example, the approach to the Hermit Songs taken by Cheryl Studer and John Browning on DGG’s complete set of Barber songs—not that Studer is “better” than Price by any means—and note the difference between the presentation of brand-new material and music whose greatness has already been pretty well established.

On the other hand, notice Price and Barber’s rendition of “The Daisies,” an early (1927) song from the composer’s Op. 2 group. By taking this often-heard song much faster than we have become accustomed to hearing, they create a virtually different entity from one that often sounds unbearably dainty.

The Poulenc songs make for a lovely and varied group. The Frenchman and the American seemed to be rather compatible, to the extent that two composers can be. This was not the only time that one performed the music of the other. After all, it was just the year before that Pierre Bernac and Poulenc had given the premiere of Barber’s Mélodies Passagères—a fine performance issued on recording by New World Records. Here Price and Barber display considerable subtlety and artistry of their own. Sauget’s 1932 cycle of five songs, whose title is translated as The Fortune Teller, are very lightweight—much more so than the Poulenc group. Pleasantly entertaining, they are nicely done here.

Some listeners may not have known that for several years Barber considered earning his living as a singer. His exquisitely sensitive performance of his own Dover Beach appeared on the same New World release noted above, and is an essential entry in the Barber discography. Here the 28-year-old baritone is heard accompanying his own singing in a recital of standard Lieder, along with a group of folksongs. Less historically-minded listeners may snicker at the outdated style of these folksong arrangements, as well as at Barber’s rather genteel, high-toned manner of vocal delivery. But ridicule of outdated conventions is a cheap source of laughs. The short, quasi-light-classical vocal recital was a popular entertainment staple during the 1930s, especially on radio. Given the genre, Barber acquitted himself with plenty of skill and musicianship, carrying off the self-accompaniment aspect—a challenge not to be underestimated—with considerable subtlety.

A notable asset of this release is the annotation: an essay on the Library of Congress recital by Anne McLean, a commentary on the music heard at this recital by Norman A. Middleton, Jr., and a discussion of Barber’s brief career as a recitalist by Patrick C. Mason. Each of these essays is both interesting an informative.

Picks of the Year: 2005

As far as I can recall, this is the first year that I actually had difficulty narrowing down my list of most significant new releases to five. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I am certainly glad that the much-observed and –discussed dwindling of the audience for classical music has not yet resulted in a corresponding tapering off of new releases featuring unusual repertoire. 

One most welcome entry is the Chandos recording (reviewed in 28:5) of Samuel Barber’s gorgeous opera Vanessa. This recent release appeared on the heels of a perfectly adequate Naxos recording of the same work. Hopefully, the latter, budget-priced, will draw new listeners to the opera, while the more expensive Chandos release provides an extraordinary performance, brilliantly recorded, to satisfy already-convinced enthusiasts who want an alternative to the almost-50-year-old Metropolitan Opera version.

The Griller Quartet’s fervently committed 1954 recordings of the first four of Ernest Bloch’s five string quartets (reviewed [most likely] in 29:1) have long been unavailable, and have achieved something like “legendary” status. Now re-issued on a modestly-priced two-disc set of CDs, these performances will presumably draw new listeners to these great works, still barely known to either the listening audience or the academic musicological world. The Griller performances offer persuasive evidence that Bloch’s quartets are comparable in stature to those of Bartók and Shostakovich. Indeed, the Quartet No. 2 is probably Bloch’s greatest work.

On the other hand, Bloch enthusiasts may want to pursue the first recording available in the United States of the rarely heard orchestral rhapsody Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and Its People (Kleos KL5134), performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the direction of David Amos. Further enhancing the value of this recording is the presence of two really obscure, but intriguing piano concertos by Isidor Achron, lesser-known younger brother of Joseph (whose music isn’t that well known either, except to violin specialists). 

Alan Hovhaness died in 2000, at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy of more than 500 works—a legacy that even the composer’s most fervent admirers will concede is “uneven” at best. Pianist Martin Berkofsky is a most effective protagonist for this music, and for his new Black Box release has selected some of Hovhaness’s most unequivocal masterpieces, which he performs—sometimes enlisting the additional participation of other pianists—with a deep understanding of the aesthetic premises underlying these works. This is an indispensable release for all admirers of the composer.

Recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music, Paul Moravec is the first such winner in the last few years whose selection seems warranted. Tempest Fantasy, the prize-winning work, is included on this brilliantly performed Arabesque CD (reviewed in 28:5), along with several other equally-rewarding pieces. Moravec’s is a compositional voice to follow: unmistakable for that of any other composer, yet clear and straightforward enough to be readily enjoyed.

The music and reputation of Vincent Persichetti, one of the supreme masters among American composers, have been in something of a hibernation since his death in 1987. Suddenly a spate of new recordings featuring his works has appeared, and will be discussed at length in a forthcoming issue. Perhaps the most significant of these is Albany’s new release of three symphonies (two of which have never been recorded before) on a two-CD set priced as one. The performances by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony are solid and sympathetic, while the recording is of revelatory clarity. 

Better known than Persichetti’s symphonies are his works for wind ensemble, which are among the cornerstones of the genre. Highly esteemed band director Eugene Corporon presents seven of these works in meticulous performances by the North Texas Wind Symphony and the Cincinnati Wind Symphony (GIA CD-627; available from; this release complements David Amos’s overlapping survey of Persichetti’s works for band featuring the winds of the London Symphony Orchestra, to be reissued imminently on Naxos American Classics.

BARBER Vanessa • Soloists/Slatkin/BBC SO/Ch • CHANDOS CHSA 5032(2)

BLOCH String Quartets: Nos. 1-4 • Griller St Qt • DECCA 475 6071

HOVHANESS Lousadzak. Two-Piano Concerto. Mihr. Vijag et al. • Berkofsky/Krimets/Globalis SO • BLACK BOX BBM1103

MORAVEC Tempest Fantasy. Mood Swings. B.A.S.S. Variations. Scherzo • Krakauer/Trio Solisti • ARABESQUE Z6791

PERSICHETTI Symphonies: Nos. 3, 4, 7 • Miller/Albany SO • ALBANY TROY771/72

BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Toccata Festiva. Essay No. 2. Essay No. 3

BARBER Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Toccata Festiva. Essay No. 2. Essay No. 3 • Marin Alsop, cond; Royal Scottish National O; Karina Gauvin (sop)1; Thomas Trotter (org) • NAXOS 8.559134 (56:55)

This is the fifth volume in Naxos’s justly praised survey of the music of Samuel Barber, America’s most beloved neo-romantic composer. By now Barber’s foothold in the active repertoire has reached the point where very few of his works have not enjoyed multiple recorded performances by the world’s most celebrated soloists, conductors, and ensembles. Therefore, I intend no aspersion when I observe that none of these four performances would be my particular favorite for each individual work. (For whatever it’s worth, if I had to choose one, Leontyne Price or Dawn Upshaw would be my choice for Knoxville, Slatkin/St. Louis would be my choice for the Essays, and Schrader/Grant Park [on Cedille CDR 90000 063] for the Toccata Festiva.) However, there are many other extremely fine performances that some may prefer for their own equally legitimate reasons. More to the point, none of the performances on this new release is less than superb; moreover, no one who has been using the Naxos series to build his library of Barber works risks being disappointed by this or any of the other releases (except for the CD of solo piano music, played by Daniel Pollack, which really is sub-standard).

A few details: This new Naxos release is especially notable for its extremely rich yet transparent sound quality, and for meticulously shaped phrasing by the Scottish National Orchestra. However, while Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin displays meticulous intonation and a luscious tonal quality, her projection of the text seems hampered either by a problem with her enunciation or by an anomaly in the way her voice was picked up by the microphone. There is also a slight problem in the balance between organ and orchestra in the Toccata. Both Essays are played beautifully here, although Alsop proves no more successful than most other conductors in projecting a dramatically coherent interpretation of Essay No. 3. Only Slatkin has been able to find a way around the miscalculations and flagging inspiration that weaken this late work, despite some undeniably magical moments.

BARBER Vanessa

BARBER Vanessa • Leonard Slatkin, cond; Christine Brewer (Vanessa); Susan Graham (Erika); William Burden (Anatol) et al; BBC Singers and SO • CHANDOS CHSA 5032(2) (2 CDs: 122:09)

Since it is less than a year since my review of the Naxos recording of this opera appeared (see Fanfare 28:1) , I will restrict my comments about the work itself to a simple summary: Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, is one of the great American operas, and a masterpiece of the composer’s stylistic maturity. Once one comes to terms with Gian Carlo Menotti’s asinine libretto, one can allow oneself to become intoxicated by the irresistibly haunting lyricism of the music, which seems increasingly pervasive throughout the work as one becomes more familiar with it.

This new release marks the third complete recording of Vanessa, and each has its virtues. In addition to the Naxos release mentioned above, there is the recording, still available, made by the original Metropolitan Opera cast in 1958, shortly after the premiere. That performance, which featured Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, and Giorgio Tozzi in the leading roles, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, still sounds excellent. Not only was this a brilliant all-star rendition, but it was captured on a remarkably fine recording, which still sounds quite good today. The Naxos set was recorded in Kiev in 2002, with an American cast and a Ukrainian orchestra, conducted by Gil Rose. As I wrote in my review, the featured soloists are “hardly household names on the international circuit…. Yet a direct comparison of both recordings reveals the new Naxos release to hold its own surprisingly well. The cast members … fulfill the requirements of their roles with convincing passion, supported by considerable artistry…. The new recording itself, of course, boasts somewhat greater richness and immediacy, though my praise for the sound quality of the older recording is not exaggerated.”

Placed in direct comparison, the new Chandos release provides what is undeniably the most fulfilling experience of the opera. Leonard Slatkin has already proven himself to be one of the most discerning and insightful interpreters of Barber’s music. While it is perhaps simplistic and fatuous to describe the main soloists here as “better” than those in the original production, they certainly have the benefit of familiarity with the opera and with those venerable performances, as well as the advantage of top-notch state-of-the-art audio reproduction (and this judgment is made without my having experienced its “Hybrid Multichannel SACD” features). Christine Brewer is luscious as Vanessa, Susan Graham is a limpid, vulnerable Erika, and William Burden is a seductively unctuous Anatol. As in Slatkin’s other Barber recordings, virtually every detail in the rich orchestral fabric is carefully shaped, its motifs interwoven with the motifs in the vocal lines, while the impact of the whole reflects Chandos’ customary combination of luxuriance and clarity.

Such a comparison of recordings results in a most fortuitous choice for the consumer: Listeners who know and love Vanessa need have no hesitation about acquiring the new, premium-priced Chandos release. On the other hand, those who may be favorably disposed to Barber’s music but somewhat hesitant to invest in a full-length opera are well-advised to take a chance on the Naxos release, at less than half the price of the Chandos. They will experience the work with the benefit of a modern recording, along with fine singers and rich, solid orchestral support. Other listeners, who may have an interest in Vanessa‘s performance history or in historical operatic performances in general, will be attracted to the RCA reissue of the original production, priced halfway between the other two.