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.