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.