BARBER: Essay No.2; Music for a Scene from Shelley; Serenade for Strings; A Hand of Bridge; A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map; Adagio for Strings; Let Down the Barsl 0 Death!.Patricia Neway, soprano; Eunice Alberts, contralto; William Lewis, tenor; Philip Maero, baritone; Vladimir Golschmann conducting the Symphony of the Air and the Robert de Cormier Chorale; Antonio Janigro conducting I Solisti di Zagreb; Paul Callaway conducting the Washington Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys. VANGUARD CLASSICS OVC-4016 [ADD]; 51:35. Produced by Seymour Solomon.
Samuel Barber’s relatively small output includes quite a few important works of less than IS-minutes duration. As a result, all-Barber compendia offering a variety of groupings have appeared with increasing frequency during the years. At hand is a reissue of Vanguard VSD-2083, a 1960 release that remained one of the finest, most representative all-Barber discs throughout the stereo LP era. Augmenting the contents of the CD are two additional Barber items taken from other entries in the Vanguard LP catalogue. Today, with performances of Barber’s music virtually ubiquitous, and new recordings appearing every month, this CD reissue continues to hold its own in the composer’s discography. The sound quality is vastly improved relative to the LP issue. True, some of the orchestral performances — the magnificent Essay No. 2 and the early Serenade, in particular — are a little scrappy, but they are also well-conceived, well-paced, and well-shaped.
The reading of Music for a Scene from Shelley is still the best yet to appear on recording. This is one of Barber’s early masterpieces, a 9-minute symphonic poem composed when he was 23. It is a haunting, atmospheric piece, conjuring a nocturnal mood of gothic romance and mystery.
A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map is a deeply moving anti-war dirge for male voices, brass, and timpani. This is still its only major recording, and it is a good one.
A recent recording of the clever mini-opera Hand of Bridge , featuring a performance under Gregg Smith’s direction (Premier PRCD-1OO9) was discussed in the previous issue of Fanfare. That reading was fine, as is this, though Vanguard’s appears to utilize a somewhat larger instrumental ensemble.
Of the two additional items, not part of the original Golschmann recording, one is a rather brisk (at less than six minutes) but heartfelt performance of the Adagio for Strinqs, featuring I Solisti di Zagreb, under the direction of Antonio Janigro. The reading is adequate, though the sound quality is a little below the standard of the rest of the disc.
The chorus proved to be a most propitious medium for Barber: His works in this genre–Prayers of Kierkeqaard, Reincarnations, A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, and others — are all among his most deeply moving compositions. “Let Down the Bars, 0 Death,” is one of Two Choruses, Op. 8, dating from the mid-1930s. It too is breathtakingly beautiful, though, at two minutes, painfully brief. One would love to hear it together with its partner, “The Virgin Martyrs.”
All in all, the fine performance of Music for a Scene from Shelley and the two pieces not available elsewhere make this a valuable Barber collection.