PISTON: Symphony No. 6; Three New England Sketches; The Incredible Flutist

PISTON: Symphony No. 6; Three New England Sketches; The Incredible Flutist. Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. RCA VICTOR 60798-2-RC [DDD]; 57:02. Produced by Joanna Nickrenz

The ongoing reconsideration of mid-century American symphonic music has brought a deepening respect for the contributions —  the eight symphonies, in particular — of Walter Piston (1894-1976). At one time Piston was viewed as the epitome of the 20th-century American academic neoclassicist; today he has emerged as a master symphonist whose earlier essays in the genre are personable, meticulously wrought representatives of their time and place, and whose later contributions probe depths of abstract expression with a majestic dignity that transcends national limitations. (See my comments on Piston’s last two symphonies in Fanfare 13:4, pp. 257-8.) Piston’s reputation as an “academic” led some to view his work as “unemotional” or “inexpressive.” Howard Hanson he wasn’t, sure! However, his slow movements always unfold with a heartfelt lyrical warmth, and, as formally precise as his work may be, its technical intricacy is always in the service of an authentically expressive musical initiative.

Interestingly, despite his “academic” reputation, Piston came to music informally and relatively late (age 17):  he was self-taught and initially played in restaurant and theater bands. It was only some time later that he went to Paris, studied with Nadia Boulanger, and was appointed to the Harvard faculty, where he remained for most of his life.

Piston belongs to the remarkable group of Italian-Americans that comprise many — if not most — of this country’s finest symphonic composers (remarkable in view of the insignificant role played by the symphony in Italian music).   Indeed, along with another Italian-American, Peter Mennin, Piston probably ranks as America’s premier symphonist. But the two composers share little in common beyond their commitment to a formal ideal that is both abstract and international. (Though each is recognizably American, neither has an overtly nationalistic component to his work. While Mennin relentlessly pursued an ever-grimmer, ever-wilder vision of chaos and violence, Piston was guided by a more Apollonian concept, as a sober, lofty reflectiveness gradually enriched his initially exuberant and vivacious musical character.

Royal S. Brown recently wrote, “They simply don’t write symphonies with more energy, atmosphere, angularity, and mood than [Piston’s Sixth].” The work was composed in 1955 specifically for Charles Munch and the BSO, with the particular characteristics and strengths of that orchestra and conductor in mind.   Their fine pioneering performance (RCA AGL1-3794) loomed for years as its definitive representation. The work’s outward virtuosity should not be construed as superficial or meretricious, as the Sixth is a work of true symphonic brilliance — tremendously assured and masterfully crafted.

In Royal Brown’s review (quoted above) of Gerard Schwarz’s fine recent recording of Piston’s Sixth (Delos DE-3074) in Fanfare 14:1 pp. 333-4), he continued, “Gerard Schwarz…has tuned in to precisely those elements of the music that give it its greatest strength… [and] gives the work the clarity and spaciousness it needs in order to communicate its musical and extra-musical complexities.” I would say that Leonard Slatkin’s new recording with the Saint Louis Symphony is even stronger and more incisive, with more precision, punch, and solidity than even the Munch/BSO recording.

The other two works on the Slatkin disc — Three New England Sketches and The Incredible Flutist — are remarkable in being Piston’s only major programmatic pieces. Three New England Sketches, dating from 1959, is no peaceful, bucolic tone poem. Though colorful and picturesque in its way, the music is as angular and uncompromising as Piston’s abstract works, the programmatic references existing as conceptual characterizations epiphenomenal to the music’s purely formal aspects. “Seaside” is rather harsh and foreboding; “Summer Evening” suggests a subdued yet continuous auditory undercurrent; “Mountains” presents a portrait both muscular and majestic.

The ever-popular early ballet, The Incredible Flutist (1938), is a far cry from its companion pieces — and from Piston’s other music in general. In fact, there is little in the music that is recognizably from the composer’s pen. Although the score doesn’t really hang together as an abstract entity, there is much that is delightful. Indeed, the opening sounds as if it were taken right out of Daphnis et Chloe, while the “Tango of the Merchant’s Daughters” is probably the loveliest melody Piston ever wrote and is absolutely unforgettable. The suite receives a splendidly virtuosic performance on this recording.

In conclusion, along with the Albany recording of the 5th, 7th, and 8th symphonies (AR011), this new RCA disc offers the definitive orchestral representation of Piston currently available.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Concerto for Piano & Orch.; Souvenirs; Canzonetta for Oboe & Strings. BRITTEN: Les Illuminations; Young Apollo. STRAUSS: Conc. for Oboe & Small Orch. WOLF-FERRARI: Idillio-Concertino. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Oboe & Strings.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Souvenirs. John Browning, Leonard Slatkin, pianists; Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. RCA VICTOR 60732-2-RC (DDD); 69:36. Produced by Jay David Saks.

BARBER: Souvenirs; Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings. BRITTEN: Les Illuminations; Young Apollo. Julia Girdwood, oboe; Carole Parley, soprano; Peter Evans, piano; Jose Serebrier conducting the London Symphony Orchestral and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. PHOENIX PHCD-111(ADD, DDD); 55:29. Produced by Jeffrey Kaufman.

BARBER: Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings. STRAUSS: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra. WOLF-FERRARI: Idillio-Concertino. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Oboe and Strings. Humbert Lucarelli, oboe; Donald Spieth conducting the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7023-2 Hl (DDD); 73:50.   Produced by Michael Fine and Karen Chester 

As the Samuel Barber discography continues its rapid growth, and his works become increasingly familiar to soloists, conductors, and ensembles, the general quality of performances rises accordingly. These three laudable new releases (along with some others reviewed in this issue) document that assertion. Barber’s Symphony No.1 — along with Hanson’s Third, the most fully consummated American symphony of the 1930s — appears virtually simultaneously on two major releases: one featuring Slatkin with the Saint Louis Symphony, reviewed here, and the other featuring Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony (Chandos CHAN-8958), reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Barber’s symphony, as most readers probably know, is a compact, one-movement integration of a classical four-movement design. Its richly romantic attitude is effectively regulated by its economical structure. The symphony, written when the composer was 26, is essentially monothematic, the grandly heroic opening theme achieving its apotheosis as the subject of a concluding passacaglia. The work was performed by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic and recorded by them soon thereafter, giving it rather broad exposure early on 

Although the First Symphony has never suffered from a paucity of recordings, only recently have performances begun to reflect an overall understanding of the deeper and subtler aspects of Barber’s compositional rhetoric. From this perspective, both Slatkin’s and Jarvi’s renditions are noteworthy. Leonard Slatkin has already demonstrated considerable affinity for and sensitivity to Barber’s music in a number of previous recordings. With Elmar Oliveira he recorded the Violin Concerto, probably the most perceptive interpretation of this work thus far committed to disc, while his recording of orchestral music (EMI/Angel CDC7-49463-2; see Fanfare 12:6) may be the best single all-Barber CD available. Slatkin’s reading of the Symphony No. 1. maintains this standard: a successful effort to articulate this fundamentally lyrico-dramatic work from the perspective of a thorough understanding of the composer’s expressive syntax. To the contrary, Järvi’s rendition reveals a fresh approach, as if a fine, experienced musician, taken with the score, has proceeded to delve into it and develop an interpretation without concerning himself with prior performance history. The result is unusual at times, but ultimately fairly convincing. Jarvi takes the opening section very broadly and almost gently, smoothing out much of its power and defiance. While this strikes me as almost alarmingly out of character, the following sections proceed with an impressive tightening of focus, building in vigor and intensity to a most definitive conclusion. On the whole, Järvi presents a satisfying view of the work as a major symphonic statement.

Both the Saint Louis Symphony and the Detroit Symphony play with outstanding refinement and precision. Both recordings offer splendid sound quality. In summary, therefore, I would recommend Slatkin’s interpretation to those just discovering this richly appealing work, and Järvi’s to those already familiar enough with it to enjoy an “alternative” approach.

Donal Henahan, chief music critic of the New York Times, regularly exposes his shameless ignorance in petulant editorials that appear in the Sunday edition. One recent column complained about the paucity of works in the standard repertoire composed since 1950. As I promptly informed him in a letter, not only does his complaint reveal misconceptions regarding the way music becomes accepted into the repertoire, but it is based on a fundamentally erroneous assumption. Among the two dozen or so works that I cited to disprove his initial contention was the 1962 Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber, now offered in what I believe is its fifth recording. The concerto was written for, premiered by, and soon thereafter recorded by John Browning. That recording (Columbia MS-6638) boasted the meticulous support of the Cleveland Orchestra, under the direction of George Szell. In the face of all subsequent recordings of this often moving, often stirring, but basically conventional-minded piece, none could match the blinding virtuosity, crisp precision, and impeccable orchestral refinement of the original Browning/Szell recording, whose only shortcoming was a shallow tinniness of sound quality typical of its vintage. Now we are presented with a new Browning performance, nearly 30 years later. How does this one compare with its predecessor (which has not, I believe, been reissued on CD)?

Not surprisingly, the new RCA Victor release provides a plush, deep sonic ambience that is clearly superior to the old Columbia sound. On the whole, this is a mellower, somewhat subtler performance, especially affecting in the lovingly phrased Canzone, which is probably the high point of the work for most listeners. However, there was an electricity and tensile strength to the earlier performance whose absence here weakens the first movement (which happens to be my favorite) and virtually destroys the third, which is little more than a Prokofievian toccata-rondo whose excitement and power depend on a manic, breakneck approach. 

Barber’s 1952 ballet suite Souvenirs, an evocation of the idle rich contentedly at play at a European hotel during the early 1900s, has always been my least favorite of the composer’s works. Hence, I never paid much attention to it, preferring to pretend it didn’t exist. However, in preparation for this review I decided to familiarize myself more deeply with it. Although usually described as a satire of Pre-World War I complacency, it is far more affectionate, nostalgic, and “campy” than satirical — after all, this was the milieu into which Barber was born and one that nurtured him quite nicely. Indeed, it is the tone of complacent self-satisfaction that I find repugnant. However, once one accepts this and goes on to the music itself, which embraces elements of both Ravel and Stravinsky, cannily integrated within the salon-like atmosphere, one cannot deny its flawless craftsmanship, its unerring sense of the style and ambience it attempts to evoke, and the presence of some irresistibly catchy tunes. I was forced to conclude my immersion in this music with a begrudging fondness for it.

The RCA release presents Souvenirs in its original piano four-hands version, played by Browning and Slatkin. This is a meticulous reading that astutely captures the elegance, grace, and charm of the music. Phoenix has reissued a performance of the orchestral version of Souvenirs that originally appeared about twenty years ago on a Desto LP, featuring Jose Serebrier conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This is a well-executed but two-dimensional performance, missing much of the music’s flair and wit. Barber-specialist Andrew Schenck conducts another recent performance of the orchestral version (coupled with ballet music by Menotti), with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Koch International CD-7005). This reading is a bit more probing, but less well played.  

The Canzonetta for oboe and strings is the last music Barber wrote. Left in short score in 1978, it was intended as the slow movement of a concerto he did not live to complete The virtually simultaneous Koch and Phoenix releases hold its very first recordings. As a “last song,” it is touchingly appropriate. The oboe was one of Barber’s favorite instruments and he scored many of his most beautiful melodies for it. Once it circulates a bit, the 7 1/2-minute piece is sure to win legions of admirers, its poignant suspensions and mournfulappogglaturas conjuring the same sort of elegiac dignity that permeates the Adagio for Strings. Yet in addition, there are touches of irony and bitterness absent from that early work-. Mahlerian touches that point to very real aspects of Barber’s mature character and make the piece all the more convincing as his valediction to life.

I have no doubt that everyone who has read this far into this review will want to own at least one recording of the Canzonetta. Both Humbert Lucarelli and Julia Girdwood are fine oboists and play the work beautifully. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is somewhat more solid than the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, and the Phoenix recording sounds a little better. Purchasing decisions will probably be determined by the remainder of the programs.

Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber share enough musical biographical features in common to provide some interesting points for comparison. While this is not the best opportunity for an extended discussion, several points might be noted. Both men were born at approximately the same time into culturally sophisticated social milieus in which their creative work was encouraged; both reflected a sensitivity to literary influences; both achieved considerable success while still quite young (their mid 20s)   Although both established their early musical identities apart from any of the current avant-garde compositional movements, Britten was certainly the more ambitious artist, seeking throughout his life to expand both his stylistic language and his aesthetic scope. Barber, by contrast, was more modest in his aims. Determining early on the type of musical expression that best suited his particular talent and temperament, he hewed to this throughout his life, in spite of considerable criticism during his later year. On the few occasions that he ventured into unfamiliar realms, he did so with serious misgivings. However, as a result, most of Barber’s music succeeds in achieving its intended aesthetic aims, whereas Britten — especially in his later years — often produced works of high aspiration that proved to be sterile and ungratifying.  In fact, it might be argued that Britten composed his best work during the years — the late 1930s through the early 1940s — when his aesthetic aims most closely paralleled those of Barber.

An excellent example is Les Illuminations, Britten’s 1939 setting of a text by Rimbaud and a work of enormous freshness, variety, and appeal. Even in such a relatively early composition, Britten’s authentic stylistic identity is clearly apparent. Its most salient feature is the transformation of a cool, Stravinskian pandiatonicism into an aerated lyricism free of tonal gravity, achieved with little harmonic dissonance. At the same time, the French language underlines the Gallic spirit that pervades the music itself. Soprano Carole Farley provides a vibrant, unusually dramatic, but richly shaped reading, with solid support from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, in a performance that I believe has been newly recorded for this Phoenix release.

Also on this disc is Young Apollo, a short piece for piano with antiphonal strings, completed about the same time as Les Illuminations. This is an attempt to render an abstract mythological image in musical terms and, despite some effective scoring and impressive moments, is rather ungainly in its unfolding. Britten evidently withdrew the work after its premiere, I would have to support that decision.

Koch International’s program of oboe music is a most pleasing new release.   In addition to the Barber Canzonetta, there is Richard Strauss’ genial and touching concerto, composed in 1945, when he was 81 and had just completed the profoundly introspective Metamorphosen.

Then there is the Idillio-Concertino by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, of opera buffa fame. This full-length, four-movement work, composed in 1932, is an unexpectedly sweet delight.As a stylistic frame of reference, I would point to the simple, rustic, lyrically poignant tunefulness of Grieg.   But this is not to diminish the work in any way; in fact, its Adagio third movement is quite lovely,

The disc concludes with the Oboe Concerto of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Composed between the radiantly serene Fifth and the harshly pessimistic Sixth Symphonies, this appealing work varies between a lilting folk-like lyricism and a darker, Sibelian brooding quality, with bucolic melismas that call to mind The Lark Ascending.

Humbert Lucarelli is a fine musician, and one of America’s best-known oboists. His contribution to the disc is consistently outstanding. The Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra is based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and has received citations for its active involvement in contemporary works. A little weak at times, they provide adequate support. Individually, other recordings of the Strauss and Vaughan Williams concertos might be preferable. But, taken as a whole, this CD offers an attractive 74-minute program of warmly engaging music. An additional bonus is the generous and informative annotation by Benjamin Folkman and Charles Turner (the associate of Barber who completed the orchestration of the Canzonetta).

BARBER Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Antony and Cleopatra: Two Scenes. Essay No. 1. Capricorn Concerto. Three Songs, Op. 45. Two Songs. COPLAND: Prairie Journal. An Outdoor Overture. Three Songs, Op. 45. Two Songs. WOLF (arr. C. Adam): Mörike Lieder:

BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Antony and Cleopatra: Two Scenes. Leontyne Price, soprano; New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Thomas Schippers. RCA GOLD SEAL AGL1-5221 , reissue produced by Leroy Parkins, $5.98

BARBER: Essay No. 1. Capricorn Concerto. COPLAND: Prairie Journal. An Outdoor Overture. Louise DiTullio, flute; Allan Vogel, oboe; Anthony Plog, trumpet (Concerto); Pacific Symphony Orchestra conducted by Keith Clark. ANDANTE AD-72406 (digital), produced by Keith Clark, $10.58 [distributed by Sine Qua Non].

BARBER: Three Songs, Op. 45. Two Songs. WOLF (arr. C. Adam): Mörike Lieder:Selections. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Charles Wadsworth, piano (Barber); Juilliard String Quartet (Wolf). MUSICMASTERS MM-20027, $7.98 [available from: Intersound, Inc., 14025-23rd Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55441].

BARBER: Op. 45: No. 1 Now Have I Fed and Eaten Up the Rose; No. 2, A Green Lowland of Pianos; No. 3, O Boundless, Boundless Evening. I Hear an Army, Op. 10, no. 3. Nocturne Op, 13, no. 4. WOLF: Schlafendes Jesuskind; Jagerlied; Begegnung; Verborgenheit; Auf ein altes Bild; Denk’es, O Seele!; Auf einer Wanderung; Nimmersatte Liebe.

Between the ages of 40 and 75, American composers have an especially difficult time. When they are younger, their accomplishments may herald attention, marking them as “new names on the scene”; as they reach the milestones of seniority, their status as “elder statesmen” prompts a more sympathetic perspective on their work. But during the middle-age period, the fortunate few who run the show are dedicated to keeping the power in their hands, and look with little tolerance upon nonconformists and their alternative viewpoints. This is a period of life that demoralizes and often destroys those composers who have sought over the years to maintain their individuality: Now they may discover that the failure to conform has brought them few rewards-tangible or spiritual; what recognition they have already won may seem to dwindle. Those who do not live to reach “elder statesman” status never witness the “critical reassessment” often prompted by their demise.

Not only is this state of affairs painfully inhumane, but it also prevents the rest of us from gaining the full benefit of having great creative artists living among us. The legacy of a Samuel Barber, who enjoyed such prominence during his youth that many of his works were familiar to those in the profession, could be “rediscovered” with relative ease; but other, equally gifted composers, never having made that initial impact, find their reputations buried with them, without ever having had the chance to connect with an audience that might have been receptive. The conventional assumption that the cream eventually rises to the top is simply wishful thinking (and a rationalization for those who refuse to make the necessary discriminations themselves).

It is sadly ironic that for the last 15 or 20 years of his life, even Samuel Barber and his music were treated with smirking condescension by the musical establishment, which regarded his continuing creativity with casual indifference, while begrudging those few works too firmly entrenched in the repertoire to be dislodged. Yet today, only 3 1/2 years since his death, Barber is one of the only American composers (if not the only one) represented internationally by a large, truly representative proportion of his oeuvre. Not that some pieces — the Adagio,Knoxville, the violin concerto-weren’t performed regularly during his lifetime; but the frequency of performances, the quantity of recordings, and the number of different works involved have increased significantly.

The three new releases discussed here reflect the current enthusiasm for Barber’s music. Particularly welcome is the reissue, on RCA’s modestly priced “Gold Seal” series, of Leontyne Price’s 1969 recording (LSC-3062) of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and two scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, the magnificent opera that Barber composed in 1966, especially with her voice in mind. It is unfortunate that in the case of such a significant reissue, RCA couldn’t manage to provide some useful program notes and quiet surfaces. But with a soprano like Leontyne Price, and a conductor like Thomas Schippers, whose many performances of Barber’s music consistently revealed the deepest sympathy and comprehension, and with the New Philharmonia Orchestra responding with great conviction, this disc continues to be an indispensable entry in the Barber discography. In the poignantKnoxville: Summer of 1915, Price rather unexpectedly summons an intimate sense of childhood nostalgia, ideally appropriate to the work. In the two powerful scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, she brings to bear a more familiar sense of imperial grandeur and majesty. Despite the public reports of disaster that attended the 1966 Metropolitan Opera premiere of this work, Antony and Cleopatra had many partisans within the music world right from the start. Indeed, the work exerted an undeniable influence on subsequent operas by a number of American composers who never doubted its merit. When a revised version of the opera was mounted by Gian-Carlo Menotti in 1975, the response was overwhelmingly favorable (though not so widely publicized). A more recent production, also directed by Menotti, was recorded by New World. This release, expected imminently, should provide a broader opportunity for acquaintance with this important work.

Andante, a division of Varèse Sarabande, has undertaken a promising series featuring the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Keith Clark, in recordings of American symphonic music. One can only hope that such a series will fill some of the gaping holes in the recorded documentation of this repertoire. Their new release offers four works that date from the years 1937-44, a period when American composers were drawn toward a kind of musical populism, which paralleled certain political trends of the moment. Barber never really participated in this direction: His natural style, though aristocratic in tone, did not require conscious simplification in order to be comprehensible. Thus his music was already enjoying great popularity at that time. Neither the Essay No. 1 nor the Capricorn Concerto is a newcomer to records — in fact, both are currently available elsewhere. The Essay No. 1 is a short work, characterized by the vein of warm, melancholy lyricism that permeated most of the music that launched Barber’s reputation during the 1930s. Indeed, many of his enduring successes date from that period, when he found especially suitable formal vehicles for his particular gifts, projecting sincere, yet dignified, emotion without inhibition. The perennial Adagio for Strings is only the best-known of several such pieces, of which the Essay No. 1 is also a fine example.

On the other hand, the Capricorn Concerto, written six years later, is a blatant indication of an apparent crisis of conviction that Barber suffered during the mid-1940s. Now the early style of the Essay No. 1 — undeniably old-fashioned, but unmistakably Barber’s own, nonetheless — was abandoned in favor of a shamelessly derivative yet very fashionable idiom inherited directly from Stravinsky. The concerto shows taste and skill at all times, but fails to distinguish itself from any number of similar pieces that appeared during the 1940s, only to be forgotten. The Capricorn Concerto would probably be among them were it not for Barber’s overall reputation.

Aaron Copland’s Prairie Journal was originally titled Music for Radio, as it was commissioned for national broadcast by CBS in 1937; it was also temporarily known as Saga of the Prairies. It has been recorded only once before: during the 1950s, part of the unique and invaluable MGM series masterminded by Edward Cole. One of Copland’s early ventures into the “Americana” vein that was to prove so successful, Prairie Journal is precisely what one might expect of an orchestral work with this title, by this composer, 12 minutes long, and episodic in form. An Outdoor Overture, composed one year later, is a better-known work, displaying Copland’s enormous flair for unabashedly distilling mainstream Stravinsky down to its simplest elements, applying them to thematic material of a distinctly American cast, producing a result so stylish and idiomatic that its synthetic basis is barely even noticed, let alone detrimental. The presence of this piece alongside Barber’s Capricorn Concerto suggests the degree of influence exerted by Stravinsky on the musical language of so many (but not all) of even the most distinctive American composers during the 1930s and ’40s. Nevertheless, the exuberance and effortless craftsmanship of An Outdoor Overture give it an irresistible appeal.

Located in Orange County, California, the Pacific Symphony was founded several years ago by its conductor Keith Clark, who has been fairly active in Europe, as a composer as well as conductor. They make quite a favorable impression on this disc-much better than one might expect of a regional orchestra. Barber’s Essay No. 1 is given a taut, powerful performance, far superior to the inept British reading conducted by David Measham on Unicorn UN1-72010, the only other current recording of the work. The Capricorn Concerto is also well played, aided by the contributions of three superb West Coast soloists. In this piece the competition is a bit stiffer, with Howard Hanson’s Eastman performance from around 1960 still in the catalog (Mercury SRI-75049). That performance, which does have its ragged moments, displays a bit more crispness and vitality, and the recording is excellent despite its age. The Copland pieces are also played with convincing finesse on the new Andante disc, although there is a stolidness of articulation and a massiveness to the sonic impact that I find somewhat inappropriate for the Copland style. The recording offers rich, luxuriant sound, but with a suggestion of some artificial boosting of the mid-range, producing a rather bloated effect.

As a melodist, Barber was second to none, and his exquisite taste in capturing the mood and meaning of a poem was unexcelled. One might thus expect vocal music to account for a significant portion of Barber’s output, and this includes several groups of songs. Three Songs, Op. 45, was the composer’s final effort in the genre. Written during the early 1970s for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who introduced them with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, they have since been performed. widely. In fact, another recording of these songs has already been issued, featuring mezzo-soprano Glenda Maurice (Etcetera ETC-1002). Yet the Three Songs, based on English translations of European poems are not of the same high caliber as Barber’s best songs, the Op. 10 group and the Op. 13 group. Fischer-Dieskau includes one from each of these groups, and the difference is strikingly evident. Like theBallade, Op. 46 and the Essay No. 3, Op. 47, the Op. 45 songs strive vainly to re-ignite the spark that kindled past glories; but the creative energy had dissipated, leaving only empty gestures. These renditions of the Barber songs are also disappointing, for several reasons: The indications of a live-performance recording are all too obvious, as hall and audience sounds are unusually obtrusive, and Fischer-Dieskau is unusually remote-not only acoustically, but artistically as well. He passes over the songs with a casualness that borders on the perfunctory. I daresay that listeners looking for sensitive, expressive renderings of Barber’s songs will find this disc quite unsatisfactory. I would recommend to such listeners the Glenda Maurice recording mentioned above, which contains nine Barber entries, sung beautifully, along with a group of Britten songs. Less brilliant vocally, but rewarding nonetheless, is a Cambridge disc (CRS-2715) featuring baritone Dale Moore in a collection of American songs, including eight of Barber.

The Musicmasters release also contains a selection of eight songs from Wolf’s Mörike Lieder. In these songs, transcribed for string quartet by Claus Adam, Fischer-Dieskau seems more at home, artistically. The quality of the recordings is closer to professional standards as well. Incidentally, Wolf himself had orchestrated several of the songs chosen by Adam, suggesting their appropriateness for transcription. Those listeners more interested in this portion of the disc may find it less disappointing.   

BARBER: Vanessa.

BARBER: Vanessa. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting; Eleanor Steber, soprano (Vanessa); Rosalind Elias, mezzo-soprano (Erika); Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Anatol); Regina Resnik, mezzo-soprano (Old Baroness); Giorgio Tozzi, bass (Old Doctor); Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Recorded in 1958. RCA VICTOR GOLD SEAL 7899-2RG [ADD]; two discs: 53:26, 60:42. Produced by Richard Mohr and John Pfeiffer.

Vanessa is a major contribution to the international operatic repertory. . . . Mr. Barber’s mastery of the operatic language is remarkable and second to none now active on the Salzburg-Milan axis. . . . His vocal writing is impeccable and his handling of the orchestra virtuoso to a Straussian degree. Paul Henry Lang,New York Herald Tribune, 1958.

Never does Barber fail in the climaxes and seldom in the interim. The almost ‘leitmotif’ approach to Act 1 grows in stature in each act until it shreds the emotions in the Quintet of Act IV, which can be referred to as nothing short of a work of genius. William Olsen, New Records, 1958.

[Vanessa] has all the characteristics that opera goers profess to yearn for todayabundant melody, luxuriant orchestration, an integrated thematic structure and above all an utterly idiomatic approach to vocal writing. Shirley Fleming,High Fidelity/Musical America, 1978.

Barber’s music provides an unleashing of lush, rich, varied melody, which simultaneously conveys inner stirrings and the outward expression that either embellishes them or masks them behind a facade. Thomas P. Lanier, Opera News, 1979.

During the past decade Samuel Barber’s relatively small canon of works (some forty-eight opus numbers) has been steadily emerging as the most enduring body of music to come from the pen of a “serious” American composer. Therefore, while this recording of Vanessa has been more or less available in various LP incarnations for more than thirty years, its reissue on compact disc will presumably prompt a fresh generation of listeners-especially those who have made the recording of the once-anathematized Anthony and Cleopatra the posthumous success it has become-to make its acquaintance.

Vanessa was Barber’s eagerly awaited first opera, composed in 1957, long after the success of many shorter vocal works had created the expectation that his talent was ideally suited to music drama. The composer himself, never comfortable with the public pressure his eminence entailed, hesitated for a long time before undertaking such a major task, reportedly insisting that he hadn’t encountered a suitable libretto. Finally, this hurdle was overcome by Barber’s long-time companion, Gian Carlo Menotti, who combined his intimate understanding of Barber’s personality with his extensive experience as a composer of operas, to create a libretto designed specifically to fit Barber’s temperament. The work that resulted from this collaboration was produced in 1958 by the Metropolitan Opera Company, with essentially the same cast as that featured here, and subsequently at the Salzburg Festival in Europe. Vanessa delighted audiences-both European and Americanfrom the outset, and was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize in music, although it was trashed by European — especially German — critics, who condemned it for not being what a contemporary American opera “should be.”

From today’s vantage point, Vanessa is a characteristic work of Barber’s stylistic maturity at its most fluent and eloquent, as well as one of his most romantic scores. Its language freely embraces elements reminiscent of Puccini, Strauss, and Mahler, yet those who are truly familiar with the composer’s works (as few were at the time of the opera’s premiere) will find it unmistakable as a work of Barber’s, from first note to last. As implied by one of the commentators quoted above, the opera gathers momentum gradually: The first act, with its exposition of character and situation, is a bit less focused musically; soon, however, one gorgeous moment follows another, as the powerfully moving score proceeds toward the justly praised canonic quintet at the conclusion. Like Antony and Cleopatra, the music is lushly orchestrated and richly interwoven with sensuous motifs that gradually take hold in one’s mind as familiarity with the work increases. (‘There is even some motivic overlap between the two operas.) 

The weakest aspect of Vanessa is Menotti’s Chekovian libretto — -specifically, its foolish characters and their ludicrously improbable predicament. The opera is set in “Vanessa’s country house in a northern country, the year about 19()5.”  In this baronial setting, the middle-aged Vanessa lives with her elderly mother, who bears some undisclosed grudge against her daughter, and Vanessa’s grown niece, Erika. Vanessa is awaiting the arrival of her true love Anatol, who has been absent for many years. When the guest finally arrives, it proves to be the son (also named Anatol) of the now deceased lover. Vanessa, vain and obsessively self-involved, simply transfers her abiding passion to the younger man. Anatol Jr., a charming but manipulative opportunist, leads both women on, seducing (and impregnating) Erika while courting Vanessa. Erika, though enamored of young Anatol, sees him for the shallow fraud he is and spurns his hollow promises. Subsequently, Vanessa and Anatol announce their engagement, and Erika runs out into the cold to abort her baby. Finally, Vanessa and Anatol leave together, while Erika stays behind, never revealing to her aunt her own involvement.

It is difficult to understand how Barber managed to conceive such magnificent music to portray the plight of such repellant people. One expects to encounter touches of irony that might suggest some sense of detachment or imply a commentary on the proceedings. Yet Barber’s music plays it straight and serious throughout. For example, “Outside this house the world has changed,” in which Anatol reveals the shabby superficiality of his character, is one of the opera’s most beautiful arias. One way of explaining this incongruity is by viewing the opera as “high camp,” wherein extravagant or improbable subject matter is treated from a totally serious perspective (e.g., Dracula).

Some may argue that Barber spreads an almost suffocating blanket of dark passion over Menotti’s slender melodrama. Others will find its heaviness absolutely appropriate for the subject. In any case, Vanessa is no dumber than a lot of Romantic works that have found their way into the repertory, and its great surges of melody head straight for the emotions of the audience. John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 1978.

This venerable performance is superb, the eminent soloists all at the top of their form. The sound quality is extraordinarily vivid and clear, with wide, 1950s-style stereo separation, and the text is fully audible. The accompanying booklet, with English libretto and a synopsis in four languages, is most helpfully organized.  

BARBER: Songs (complete). Leontyne Price Sings Baber. BARBER: Choral Music.

BARBER: The Songs (complete). Cheryl Studer, sOprano; Thomas Hampson, baritone; John Browning, piano; Emerson String Ouartet. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOpHON 435 887-2 [DDD]; two discs: 5324, 56:26. Produced by Pal Christian Moe, Wolfgang Midehner, and Max Wilcox.

Ten Unpublished Songs. Three Songs, Op. 2. Dover Beach, Op. 3. Three Songs, Op. 10.Four Songs, Op. 13.   Two Songs, Op. 18.   Nuvoletta Op. 25   Melodies passagères, Op. 27. Hermit Songs, Op. 29. Despite and Still, Op. 41. Three Songs, Op. 45.

LEONTYNE PRICE SINGS BARBER. Leontyne Price, soprano; Samuel Barber, piano; Thomas Schippers conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestral. RCA VICTOR GOLD SEAL 09026-61983-2 (ADD); 62:41. Produced by John Pfeiffer.

From SongsOp. 2: The DaisiesFrom SongsOp. 10Sleep NowFrom Songs, Op. 13:  Nocturne.  Knoxville: Summer of 1915Op. 24.   Nuvoletta Op. 25Hermit SongsOp. 29.Antony and Cleopatra Op. 40: (two scenes). [Live performance at the Library of Congress Oct. 30, 1953.]

BARBER: Choral Music. Timothy Brown conducting the Cambridge University Chamber Choir, Thomas Ades, piano. GAMUT CD-535 [DDD]; 50:53. Produced by Clive Bright, Barbara Fairs, Martin Bright. (Distributed by Allegro Imports.)

Two Choruses, Op. 8;  Agnus Dei, Op. 11. From Songs, Op. 19: A Nun Takes the Veil; Sure on This Shining Night. A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15. Reincarnations, Op. 16. From Hermit Songs, Op. 29: The Monk and His Cat.Vanessa, Op. 32 (Excerpt) Antony and Cleopatra, Op. 40  (Two Excerpts)Two Choruses, Op. 42

The music of Samuel Barber is more “beautiful,” as this word is generally understood by the average music lover, than that of any other composer (O.K., I’ll say any recent composer). This gives his work a tremendous universal appeal and accounts for the steady increase in performances and recordings as musicians and listeners become more thoroughly acquainted with it. It is only a matter of time, I believe, before most of his output achieves the popularity of the Adagio for Strings, simply because so much of it is comparable with regard to the nature of its attractions.

Listeners who have a bias toward instrumental music and think of the Essays for orchestra, symphonies, concertos, and a few chamber works as the backbone of Barber’s output are quite mistaken, as these three releases demonstrate. It is not that Barber was primarily a vocal composer, but rather, a literary composer. With all due respect for the many virtues of his abstract instrumental works, his great creative gift was fundamentally triggered by the moods and emotions evoked by texts that appealed to him, which he was then able to project into music with uncanny appositeness. Counting by Opus numbers, nearly half his output utilizes literary texts — more than half if one adds instrumental works with literary connotations in their titles.   .

The three releases under discussion here, taken together, constitute more than a third of Barber’s entire oeuvre, distributed throughout his career, and truly embody his aesthetic worldview. Obviously, the new two-disc DG release — subtitled, for reasons that escape me,Secrets of the Old, after a not terribly significant or representative song from Op. 13 — is the headline item of this review and a Want List definite, presenting Barber’s forty-seven songs in thoughtfully conceived and lovingly executed performances, beautifully captured on recording. Clearly it will put all previous Barber song collections in the shade. But the Leontyne Price disc is also indispensable, as hers was one of the composer’s favorite voices and the one for which the Hermit Songs and Antony and Cleopatra were originally intended and for which the latter, at least, was ideally suited. And the choral disc is an extremely enjoyable program that brings to light a number of pieces of the first rank that are often overlooked simply because the chorus — with and without piano accompaniment — is viewed as a peripheral medium from the mainstream perspective. So I am afraid that Barber enthusiasts had better prepare to plunk down some money, because each of these issues is pretty hard to resist. In fact, not just Barber enthusiasts: This music has such appeal that it is difficult to imagine who wouldn’t find these discs irresistible — perhaps those who listen only to music composed before 1750, those who cannot tolerate the sound of the singing voice, and those who are interested only in experimental music.

One of the chief curiosities of the DG set is the first appearance of ten early, unpublished songs. Note that only two of these songs pre-date Barber’s published music; the others were contemporaneous with the Op. 2 and Op. 10 groups, as well as with the Adagio, Essay No. I , and First Symphony, for example. Yet I must report with some disappointment that, for the most part, these songs leave one with respect for Barber’s judgment in omitting them from his official list of works, as only one or two — “Of That So Sweet Imprisonment” and perhaps “Strings in the Earth and Air” (both Joyce settings) — galvanize one’s attention. The others, while pretty enough, remain within the conventions of the English-language romantic art-song genre of the time, with its sensibility of milquetoast gentility. “The Daisies,”  the earliest song from Op. 2, shares this quality as well, but is soon followed by the Brahmsian elevation of “With Rue My Heart Is Laden,” and from there on the standard is maintained at an exceedingly high level that some might call greatness. 

A number of commentators, including Barber himself, have insisted that his style never changed substantially, but I think this is not true, as is clearly evident in listening to this chronological survey of his songs. I believe that a new sensibility, fueled by a number of artistic and musical influences, entered Barber’s music in 1942 with the Op. 18 songs, which followed on the heels of the fervent monumentality of the Essay No. 2. At this point, the rather humorless, somewhat straitlaced, exquisitely sensitive and high-toned Anglo-Saxon quest for “beauty” (which I don’t mean in any way to disparage) was amplified-not replaced–by a lighter, more relaxed vein of feeling, characterized by humor, a bit of irony, and greater comfort with rhythmic irregularity and harmonic dissonance-all of which can be characterized as “French” in character, although sometimes with a Stravinskian accent (listen to “The Praises of God” from the Hermit Songs) and sometimes with the unmistakable influence of “lifetime companion” Gian Carlo Menotti (listen to Nuvoletta for but one example). By the mid 1950s these elements, along with a newly displayed taste for ancient Greek and Roman subjects, treated with sumptuous exotic grandeur, were more fully integrated within Barber’s palette, forming his mature expressive language. The Mélodies PassagèresHermit Songs,Antony and Cleopatra, and other post-1942 compositions are not quite as totally in-your-face accessible as the earlier music, but, given a little time and attention, offer profoundly rewarding and deeply moving listening experiences.

I am not saying that every piece here is a masterpiece; I happen not to be terribly fond ofNuvoletta; and some others, including even a few of the Hermit Songs, seem silly to me. Each listener is sure to have his own preferences. My particular favorites are the newly discovered “Of That So Sweet Imprisonment,” “Bessie Bobtail” from Op. 2, “Rain Has Fallen” from Op. 10, which is sung absolutely gloriously by Thomas Hampson, the widely beloved “Sure On This Shining Night” and “Nocturne” from Op. 13, “Un cygne” from Mélodies Passagères, and “St. Ida’s Vision” and “The Crucifixion” from the Hermit Songs. Placed out of chronological sequence on the recording, but earliest of all these favorites, is Dover Beach, the astonishingly youthful setting of Matthew Arnold’s eloquent and profoundly pessimistic poem for baritone and string quartet. Here the twenty-one-year-old composer captures with amazingly precocious insight the emotional and philosophical nuances of these somber verses. Unfortunately, the rendition here suffers from improper balance between baritone Hampson and the string quartet, so that the voice is buried within the strings — perhaps the only blemish of this otherwise splendid production. Barber’s own 1935 recording as baritone still remains unexcelled, despite a number of other formidable efforts. As far as I am concerned, these constitute some of the most unforgettable vocal music in the English language.

Throughout the set, Studer and Hampson apply their gorgeous vocal endowments to this music with great sympathy and artistry, resulting in performances that match or surpass all previous recorded attempts (except for Dover Beach, as noted above). John Browning’s contribution as pianist, enriched by long familiarity with Barber and his music, imbues the accompaniments with a consistent conception that, in its way, unifies the entire collection.

The long-awaited Leontyne Price reissue disc is a natural complement to the new Studer/ Hampson release. As noted earlier, she and her voice were important factors in Barber’s career as a vocal composer. Available for the first time on recording is the world premiere performance of the Hermit Songs, done, along with four other songs, at the Library of Congress in October 1953 — one year before the famous studio recording — again with the composer as pianist — that has long loomed as the definitive performance of this cycle (currently available on Sony MPK-46727). The sound quality is, of course, better on the studio recording, and the performances are more secure, but some nice touches of spontaneity emerge from this concert document. Incidentally, the reading of “The Daisies” is something of a revelation, as Price and Barber give it a quick, almost casual lightheartedness that is quite different from the way we are accustomed to hearing it. Though Knoxville was never “hers,” Price characterized the work with a boyish innocence that penetrated more deeply than many other otherwise superb versions. Knoxville has been the beneficiary of many excellent recorded performances, but Price’s is as fine as anyone’s, although the level of background hiss on this 1968 recording — though not really damaging — is too high not to mention. For some reason, this problem does not seem to affect the two Antony and Cleopatra scenes. Despite its unpromising beginnings, the 1966 opera has since been steadily winning admirers and vindicating itself as one of the composer’s mature masterpieces, and Price’s towering performances of these two scenes have been a significant factor in rehabilitating its reputation. Listeners not yet familiar with the opera, or with the dramatic scene Andromache’s Farewell or the choral cantata The Lovers, have major musical epiphanies awaiting them. 

It is difficult to imagine that anyone interested in the recordings discussed thus far would fail to be equally intrigued by the program of Barber’s choral music offered by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. As I have often observed, Barber’s choral works, such as thePrayers of Kierkegaard and the just-mentioned cantata The Lovers (both on Koch International 3-7125-2H1), are among his greatest compositions. These two happen to be large works but, as with the solo vocal music, the smaller items are no less rewarding. Three Reincarnationsa cappella settings of three Irish poems collected by James Stephens, are much loved by listeners familiar with the superb rendition by the Gregg Smith Singers on an old Everest LP. Dating from about the same time as the op. 13 songs, they exhibit a comparable lyrical poignancy and directness. All three are delightful, but the third, “The Coolin,” is one of those glimpses into pure “beauty.” Another piece from the same period is A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, a deeply moving setting of the antiwar poem by Stephen Spender. The disc also provides an opportunity to hear the choral arrangement of Adagio for Strings, entitled Agnus Dei. As lovely as the piece is for strings — quartet and large ensemble versions — it is an absolute natural for unaccompanied choir, underlining the neo-Renaissance implications of its pseudo-ecclesiastical effect. I notice that this version of the work is rapidly gaining popularity, as the number of recent recordings indicates. The other significant items on this disc are first recordings, I believe, of Two Choruses, op. 8 (from the mid 1930s) and Two Choruses, op. 42 (from 1969). Religious feelings, as expressed through the sensibilities of poets — as opposed to sacred texts themselves — inspired some of Barber’s best music. A particularly haunting but little-known example is “Twelfth Night” from the op. 42 pair, a setting of a poem by Laurie Lee. The other items — excerpts and alternative arrangements (wait till you hear “Sure On This Shining Night” sung by chorus) — all contribute to a disc that is a pleasure to hear from beginning to end. The performances are excellent technically, the harmonic and contrapuntal motion clear and transparent. However, the interpretations are a little pale and undercharacterized, and could benefit from a bit more warmth, flexibility, and humanity.   

SCHWANTNER: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra.. Velocities. New Morning for the World

SCHWANTNER  Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Velocities. New Morning for the World. Evelyn Glennie (perc);Vernon Jordan, Jr. (spkr); Leonard Slatkin (cond); National SO – BMG/RCA Victor 09026-68692-2 (61:19)

Among those American composers who reached maturity after the early 1960s, a chief concern has been the creation of music with an appealing enough surface to leave an audience with a positive first impression. However, in much of this music, further exposure seems to offer little in the way of significant content. This is especially perplexing in the case of Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943), because the initial impact made by his music is often quite sensational — an impression further confirmed by this recent release. In fact, on many levels this recording is an absolute knockout– especially in the two works featuring the phenomenal percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie, whom I coincidentally had the opportunity to hear in a live performance just a few days ago, an experience from which I am still reeling. The other work — New Morning for the World — is no less impressive in many ways.

But Schwantner’s music has left me with ambivalent reactions since I first heard it. More than fifteen years ago, in Fanfare 7:2, I wrote, “On the one hand, an authentic musical sensibility can be discerned, together with an impetus toward direct and clear communication, and a gift for combining highly imaginative sonorities with affecting  melodic/harmonic motifs. . . . On the other hand, . . . one begins to realize that Schwantner’s range is quite narrow, relying on a small number of different devices: richly colored ascending arpeggios that are subsequently fragmented and re-articulated through staggered, interlocking effects; delicate use of percussion; lusciously orchestrated pyramids that build dramatically, often to solemn quasi-chorales, which cut abruptly to hushed, awesome, slightly elegiac quasi-hymns, squeezing every last tear from poignant appoggiaturas.”

By now, New Morning for the World, an orchestral composition that incorporates spoken passages from the speeches of Martin Luther King, seems to have become Schwantner’s best-known work. It is also probably his most accessible, and this is its third recording — quite remarkable for a piece in existence a mere sixteen years. It projects King’s eloquent words against a sumptuous sonic backdrop of glittering orchestral resplendence, formed from essentially simple melodic and harmonic material, without including any elements of vernacular Black music. It is not at all unlike Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in aesthetic concept, while reflecting a late 20th-century sensibility. Reviewing its first recording, I wrote, “I suspect many will be quite bowled over by it. . . . Here . . . Schwantner embraces the symphony orchestra’s capacity for richly romantic expression, thereby enhancing the almost hypnotic intensity of King’s words. The work builds to a climax of great emotional power, which some listeners will liken to a corresponding point in Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra.” Indeed, one needs a pretty hard heart not to be swept away by it, although at the time I found the experience of listening to it “somewhat like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response.” Nevertheless, twelve years later, I found the work to have retained its power, writing (in Fanfare 18:5), “It is an enormously effective work, as satisfying in its way as Copland’s enduring memorial to Lincoln. . . . The brilliantly scored music combines elements of an urgent, exhortatory nature with hushed, fervent, hymnlike passages, which ultimately merge in an ecstatic climax whose effect is hard to resist.”

Obviously, I have done this much self-quoting because I find that my earlier words continue to apply today. What needs to be added is the statement that of the three performances — all of them excellent — this new one is the best with regard to orchestral playing and sound quality. However, narrator Vernon Jordan (a much more familiar figure as I write this today than he was a few months ago when the disc was released) is the poorest of the three, with a flat, constricted, “corporate” sort of delivery, lacking the pathos and nobility imparted by both Willie Stargell and Raymond Bazemore respectively. For this work I would recommend the Koch disc that also contains Nicolas Flagello’s equally moving Passion of Martin Luther King, with the Oregon Symphony under the direction of James DePreist. Though as a bass-baritone, Raymond Bazemore cannot do justice to Flagello’s sometimes demanding arioso, as a speaker in the Schwantner he is quite eloquent.

Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto was written in 1993-94 on commission from the New York Philharmonic and was dedicated — as were a number of works at the time — to the memory of composer Stephen Albert, whose life had ended prematurely the previous year. The concerto is nearly half an hour in duration and features some twenty different percussion instruments. Schwantner has a very recognizable “sound,” deriving from a rather distinctive combination of harmony, gesture, and timbre, and this piece is identifiable as his within the first ten seconds. Interestingly, the harmony and gestures call to mind the heavy progressive jazz of the early 1950s — say, the sound of the Stan Kenton band, or of the filmscores Henry Mancini was writing at that time — while a strong predilection for metallic sonorities (even in pieces in which the percussion section is not explicitly highlighted) clearly dates it as post-1975.

The concerto is a tremendously exciting showpiece, involving the featured instruments in lots of activity, well organized into a coherent statement.  The long, elegiac second movement, “In Memoriam,” makes the strongest impression, as the concert bass drum, playing a reiterated motif that symbolizes a heartbeat, is used (somewhat unconventionally) as the point of focus, building to quite a moving climax. But the outer movements, as much fun as they are to listen to, do not really leave a substantive impression.

Velocities, a seven-minute solo for marimba composed in 1990, is a virtuoso showpiece in perpetual motion, featuring a rapid interplay among irregular note-patterns. It fulfills its purpose nicely enough, but, similarly, doesn’t make that much impact.

Many readers are probably already familiar with the extraordinary talents of Evelyn Glennie, a Scotswoman, deaf since adolescence, who is well on the way to becoming the first classical percussion superstar. She displays a profound sense of almost mystical union with her music-making, a sense that performance is a desperate life necessity for her, so that in observing her one almost feels as if one is intruding on a personal act of religious devotion. This is the sort of music-making one may feel fortunate to witness even just a few times in one’s life.

The conductor of this new BMG recording, Leonard Slatkin, has been a consistent advocate of Schwantner’s music for quite a few years now, and reveals his affinity for it in these brilliant performances.  

BARBER: Works for Piano; COPLAND: Piano Sonata. Piano works by HAGEN, CARTER, CHOPIN, MUSSORGSKY, SCHUMANN, & SCARLATTI.

BARBER Complete Published Solo Piano Music – Daniel Pollack (pn) – NAXOS 8.559015 (72:16)  Three Sketches (1923-24); Interlude I (1931); Excursions, op. 20; Sonata, op. 26; Souvenirs, op. 28; Nocturne, op. 33; Ballade, op. 46

BARBER Sonata, op. 26; Nocturne, op. 33; Ballade, op. 46. HAGEN Qualities of Light – Jeanne Golan (pn) – ALBANY TROY-324 (58:53)

BARBER Sonata, op. 26. COPLAND Sonata. CARTER Sonata – John Owings (pn) – KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7622-2H1 (66:56)

  FRICK COLLECTION RECITAL – William Kapell (pn) – RCA RED SEAL 09026-68997-2, mono/analog (74:54). Live broadcast: New York, 3/1/1953

COPLAND: Sonata. CHOPIN: Nocturne, op. 55/2; Mazurka, op. 33/3; Polonaise-Fantaisie, op. 61. MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition. SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen (no. 1). SCARLATTI: Sonata in E, K.380/L.23

Here is the latest crop of releases to address the piano music of Samuel Barber, along with some other important (mostly) American piano music. Naxos’s American Classics series enters the fray with a generous program featuring the veteran California-born and -based pianist Daniel Pollack. Pollack’s performance of the Barber sonata at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 created quite a stir during the “Cold War” period, although it was rather overshadowed by Van Cliburn’s triumph that same year. Pollack’s recording of the sonata, made shortly thereafter for Melodiya, became one of the leading representations of a work far less familiar then than it is today. (Of course, Cliburn made his own reasonably successful recording of the sonata about ten years later.)

Despite the high esteem in which it is held by many, I have always felt that Barber’s 1949 Piano Sonata is not quite the towering masterpiece one might expect such a work from this composer to be. Though I have been voicing this opinion for many years, I must admit that hearing countless performances, radically different in approach, has increased my affection for the piece, and I cannot deny that the more penetrating readings give me considerable pleasure. However I continue to feel that the work suffers from several weaknesses that cannot be totally overcome. One problem is that the texture of the first movement is overly congested, and with material that is too disparate in character, so that it seems to ramble frantically in too many different directions. A commonly encountered approach to this movement is to set a vigorous tempo and attempt to focus on the broad outline, with the result that the motivically dense texture becomes messy and chaotic. Another approach is to concentrate on conveying the many mood shifts and on elucidating significant textural details, but this often produces a performance in which the proverbial forest is concealed by the trees, as the overall sense of focus and direction is lost. The only solution is—as in many works of Scriabin—to attempt the extraordinarily difficult task of doing both, i.e., setting and maintaining a vigorous sense of direction, while also delineating the many mood shifts and textural elements within their relative relationships to each other. I have heard only one performance that achieves this goal (and I will identify it in a moment).

My other major complaint applies to a number of works that enjoy popular favor, so perhaps my feelings are not shared by everyone. I believe that it is necessary for a large-scale, multi-movement work to be unified by a consistent, superordinating concept, such that individual movements, regardless of how much they may differ from each other with regard to tempo, texture, thematic material, etc., join collectively in conveying this concept. In order words, the movements “belong” together. From this perspective, the twinkly little scherzo movement and the fugal finale in the style of a Latin-American dance, while providing conventional contrasts in mood, tempo, and pianistic challenge, are not consistent with or relevant to the overall meaning of the work, as proclaimed by the restless and uncontainable first movement, and acknowledged by the eloquently somber slow movement. And so, pianist after pianist, proceeding from the unquestioned premise that Barber’s is the American traditionalist piano sonata par excellence, flails about in vain, trying to make it “work.”

Pollack’s approach is to tear at the work at break-neck tempos, completing the task at 18:12. While this tack certainly generates excitement, some passages, virtually impossible at such tempos, become scrambled and messy. Furthermore, Pollack’s playing lacks sensitivity. Indeed, he plays most of the pieces on this disc in a crude, obvious, and heavy-handed way, with unusually fast tempos that minimize the depth of the music, skirting over emotional nuances, and missing the reflective and ethereal moments completely. If Pollack’s reading of the sonata is rather crass, a piece like the delicate Nocturne is completely destroyed, while the inherently campy Souvenirs are deprived of the graceful and stylish charm that redeems their otherwise kitchy banality. Interestingly, the music that fares best in Pollack’s hands are the Excursions. Here the composer’s fastidious ventures into vernacular American styles benefit from the hearty virility imparted by Pollack.

In addition to the usual entries in the Barber canon, Pollack also includes some of the posthumously published works that have just recently been appearing on recording: the early salon pieces called Three Sketches and the 6-or-so-minute Interlude I. I expect that we will encounter this latter work fairly often now, as it is the short solo piano work in Barber’s much-beloved early style that pianists and audiences have long wished for—the pianist’s answer to the Adagio for Strings, so to speak. Interlude I does display the fingerprints of Brahms more than anything else he wrote, which probably accounts for the composer’s decision not to include the piece, composed at about the same time as Dover Beach, in his official worklist. However, its warmth and lyricism are lovely, and its mood and character could only be attributed to Barber.

Pollack’s performances were recorded in California in 1995. For some reason, the piano has both a metallic and muffled tone quality that is odd and not terribly appealing. So, in summary, this may be the least expensive recording of Barber’s piano music, but it is definitely not the best. That distinction belongs to what is — most unfortunately — probably the least readily accessible disc: a French release on the Solstice label (SOCS 145; see “A Continuing Reassessment of Samuel Barber,” in Fanfare 20:4), featuring the Bulgarian pianist Lilia Boyadjieva. All listeners who are interested in Barber’s piano music are urged to make the effort to locate this recording, if for no other reason, just to hear the most fully realized performance of the Piano Sonata on disc.

If Pollack’s reading of the Barber sonata is the most extreme example of the “fast and furious” approach, then Jeanne Golan’s — at 25:06 — is the most extreme example of the “elucidate every strand” approach. Trained both at Yale and at Eastman, Golan seems to be a very intelligent young artist, and I suspect that she is well aware of what an unconventional interpretation she is presenting. Though it falls into the trap of losing its sense of direction, her reading of the first movement is illuminating in many ways, revealing an extraordinary richness of textural detail. The second and third movements are handled with appropriate delicacy and sensitivity, but her finale lacks sufficient propulsive power and intensity to achieve the desired effect.

However, as might be expected, Golan’s reading of the 1959 Nocturne is exquisitely delicate and poetic. Indeed, I have never heard the piece in a lovelier rendition. Golan is also successful with the problematic late work, Ballade, imparting a wide range of subtle nuances into this Scriabin-like mood piece, which so few pianists seem able to bring to life. Golan’s artistry is abetted by the extraordinarily fine sound quality captured at the New England Conservatory, where the recording, released on the Albany label, was made.

Koch International presents the Texan pianist John Owings in an intriguing concept recital that features the three major American piano sonatas of the 1940s: those by Barber, Copland, and Carter. To round out our little survey of recent attempts to master the Barber sonata, Owings’s effort might be regarded as the most conventional and middle-of-the-road. In fact, it adds nothing to one’s understanding or appreciation of the work, although it is successfully executed on its own terms. However, one factor that diminishes my enjoyment of the entire disc is the distant aural perspective captured on the recording, which was done at Texas Christian University, where Owings is a member of the faculty. Owings is obviously a more-than-competent pianist, and though his performance of the Barber is rather routine and uninteresting, he brings an energetic musical intelligence to his readings of the Copland and Carter sonatas. But these works especially are predicated on a bright, crisp, and clear type of piano sonority. Owings’s performances of these two works would probably be more satisfying if they were recorded in a manner that better captured their sonic styles. In fairness, I should allow that sonic ambiance may be viewed as a subjective matter, and other listeners may feel differently.

Aaron Copland completed his Piano Sonata in 1941, around the time of A Lincoln Portrait, Quiet City, and Rodeo. However, unlike those three works in his populist-Americana vein, the Piano Sonata exemplifies the more abstract, personal aspect of his output. For many years the works in the latter group were discussed as if they were rather forbidding, inaccessible, and different in kind from his more populist creations. I would be surprised, however, if listeners failed to hear in this work (and in others of his “serious” pieces) most of the qualities — except, perhaps, for the “wide open spaces” effect — associated with his best-known compositions. Among the remarkable features of the sonata is its use of gestures and chordal sonorities as basic structural elements, rather than conventional motifs and themes. Another is its almost unbearably kinetic treatment of rhythm — especially irregular, unpredictable, “additive,” rather than regular, symmetrical, “metric” rhythmic patterns. This highly distinctive adaptation of an approach to rhythm derived directly from Stravinsky is often attributed to Copland’s exposure to jazz, but is so much more elaborate and far-reaching that such a characterization is misleadingly superficial. Copland’s treatment of rhythm, along with his unorthodox approach to piano sonority, heard first in the acerbic Piano Variations of 1930, exerted a tremendous influence on the development of American Neoclassicism. The aspect of the Piano Sonata that is initially most challenging to the listener, however, is not its harmonic or rhythmic complexity, but, rather, the long stretches of slow, spare writing, during which little seems to be going on. These passages may initially be taxing to one’s concentration. However, with increased familiarity they reveal a searching, poignant simplicity and a spare but touching lyricism that balance the more nervous, agitated portions of the work nicely.

Among the pianists drawn to Copland’s Piano Sonata was William Kapell, who included the work on a recital given at New York’s Frick Museum in March, 1953 — less than eight months before the fatal plane crash that ended the pianist’s life at the age of 31. Apparently a broadcast tape of that recital has recently come to light, and has been released by RCA Red Seal with much fanfare. The sound quality of this release is quite good, its chief defect being some faintly audible interference from an adjacent radio station. The sonic ambiance, however, is close and bright, with a very immediate, almost percussive, quality — diametrically opposed to the foggy ambiance heard on the Koch release. As suggested earlier, this bright, close sound is much more suitable to Copland’s conception, although, quite understandably, as an older recording made to document an event, it is less than optimal, verging on a shallow harshness. Kapell plays the work with tremendous nervous tension and extraordinary precision. Although for the most part his rendition captures and aptly projects the sonata’s expressive content, at times the tension underlying his reading seems a little severe and lacking in elasticity.

Discussion of the Copland sonata is incomplete without considering two other recordings currently available. One features Leonard Bernstein, who recorded what he called “my favorite piece of Aaron’s” in 1947. Bernstein had such a profound and intimate affinity for the music of his compositional mentor that his interpretations of Copland’s music are consistently and reliably definitive. At the age of 28 Bernstein was probably at the height of his enthusiasm for Copland’s music and his piano technique might have been at its most fluent. Hence one might expect such a recording to be ideal, and that is pretty much the case — especially as regards the sense of tensile elasticity and kinetic spontaneity one misses in Kapell’s reading. The only shortcomings one might note are the dated sound quality and a less-than-total technical control, which one can expect, after all, from only the very finest full-time pianists.

All of which leads us to the other essential recording of the Copland sonata — from one of the very finest full-time pianists of his generation. As part of its “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series, Philips has reissued some of Leon Fleisher’s solo recordings—among them the Copland sonata. This is an extraordinary document of piano artistry, fusing keen intelligence, profound musicality, and almost inhuman technical control. The only factor preventing me from terming this rendition “perfect” is its sense of composure; one misses Bernstein’s restless verve and spontaneous exuberance. (Before leaving Fleisher, I must add that Philips’s 2-CD set also includes Liszt’s B-minor Sonata. Fanfare boasts so many Liszt authorities that perhaps I am not entitled to comment on a subject in which I claim no special expertise. Nevertheless, I do consider the Liszt B-minor to be the greatest piano sonata of the 19th century [after Beethoven], and have heard my share of performances. But I have never heard a reading of this work that approaches Fleisher’s in achieving unhindered the fulfillment of an interpretive ideal that reveals the work to be a masterpiece of eloquence and coherence. No admirer of the B-minor Sonata should fail to be acquainted with it.)

Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata followed Copland’s by five years, and, in many ways, takes the latter as its point of departure. Carter’s approaches to harmony, rhythm, gesture, and piano sonority are essentially derived from Copland, but in this sonata he develops them to far greater levels of contrapuntal density, producing a work that is rich with interest and excitement. In fact, one might argue that the Piano Sonata represents Carter at the height of his authentic powers of musical creativity, before he veered off in directions that better insulated him from direct critical judgment. One might even further argue that Carter’s is the most fully realized of the three American sonatas at the center of this review. Again, John Owings offers a brilliant and energetic reading of the work, for which one’s enthusiasm is dampened only by the aforementioned complaint regarding sonic ambiance.

If one wishes to acquire a recording specifically for the Carter sonata, I would probably recommend Paul Jacobs’s rendition on Elektra/Nonesuch. If one were seeking a recording of the Copland, I would recommend Fleisher. And if one were looking for the best recording of the Barber sonata, I would recommend Boyadjieva. But if one wishes to acquire all three works on one disc, and is not very sensitive to sonic ambiance, then Owings on Koch would be quite adequate.

Let’s return for a moment to the Kapell recital. In addition to the Copland sonata, the pianist offered several Chopin selections, the brief Schumann tidbit, a Scarlatti sonata, and the Pictures at an Exhibition. One must begin by noting that the sound quality that suited the Copland sonata so well is quite inappropriate for the music of Chopin, which sounds as though it is being viewed under a microscope, which is not the best way to view Chopin. Furthermore, in listening to this disc, I couldn’t shake the impression that a few notes on the piano were a tad out-of-tune. Nevertheless, the Op. 61 Polonaise-Fantaisie is heard in a performance that I think many will find quite thrilling. The familiar Scarlatti sonata sounds lovely as well. However, Kapell’s breathlessly urgent and pianistically undaunted traversal of Mussorgsky’s Pictures fails to add luster to what is for me a threadbare war-horse.

Pianist Jeanne Golan entitles her recital on Albany, “American Tonal,” and complements her Barber selections with a very recent work by the 38-year-old Curtis-trained Daron Hagen. This is my first exposure to Hagen’s music, and he appears to be an interesting Post-Modern voice reminiscent of no other composer in particular except, perhaps, Olivier Messiaen. Clearly, Hagen’s notion of tonality is a far more vague concept than Barber’s. Qualities of Light is a 23-minute work in three movements, rather dreamlike and mysterious in tone. The central movement was composed first, and seems to be a rather elaborate set of variations, while creating a somewhat nightmarish effect. The two short outer movements are more peaceful and serve as a sort of frame. The work did not elicit a strong reaction from me, other than openness to hearing more from this composer.