BARBER HISTORICAL RECORDINGS: 1935-1960 ● Various performers ● WHRA 6039, analog (9 CDs)
CDs 1, 2: Vanessa (Mitropoulos, cond; Steber, Gedda, Elias, Resnik, Tozzi; Metropolitan Opera Company) Live: New York City 2/1/1958; Medea:Orchestral Suite (Barber, cond; New SO of London) London 12/12/1950 [Decca LX-3049]; Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (Mitropoulos, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 3/16/1958 (156:43)
CD 3: Overture to “The School for Scandal” (W. Janssen, cond; Janssen SO of Los Angeles) Los Angeles 3/11/1942 [Victor 11-8591]; Symphony No. 1: original version (Rodzinski, cond; NBC SO) Live broadcast: Studio 8H 4/2/1938; Symphony No. 1: revised version (B. Walter, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 3/12/1944; Adagio for Strings (Toscanini, cond; NBC SO) Live broadcast: Studio 8H 11/5/1938; Essay No. 1 (Toscanini, cond; NBC SO) Live broadcast: Studio 8H 11/5/1938; Essay No. 2 (B. Walter, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 4/16/1942; Commando March (Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 10/30/1943 (78:35)
CD 4: Symphony No. 2: original version (Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO) Live broadcast: Boston 3/4/1944; Symphony No. 2: revised version (Barber, cond; New SO of London) London 12/13/1950 [Decca LX-3050]; Symphony No. 2: revised version (Barber, cond; Boston SO) Rehearsal: Boston 4/1951 (79:37)
CD 5: Die Natali (Munch, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 12/23/1960; Prayers of Kierkegaard (L. Price, sop; Munch, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 12/3/1954; Violin Concerto: original version (A. Spalding, vn; Ormandy, cond; Philadelphia O) Live: Philadelphia 2/7/1941 (61:12)
CD 6: Violin Concerto: revised version (R. Posselt, vn; Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO) Live: Boston 1/7/1949; Capricorn Concerto (J. Baker, fl; M. Miller, ob; H. Freistadt, tpt; Barber, cond; CBS SO) Live broadcast: 5/2/1945; Cello Concerto (Z. Nelsova, vc; Barber, cond; New SO of London) London 12/11/1950 [Decca LPS-332] (66:46)
CD 7: Cello Sonata (O. Cole, vc; V. Sokoloff, pn) Live: Philadelphia 1/28/1973; String Quartet: original version (Curtis Qt) Live: Philadelphia 3/14/1938; Excursions (Rudolf Firkusny, pn) New York City 11/17/1950 [Columbia ML-2174]; Souvenirs(Gold and Fizdale, duo-pianists) 8/15/1952 [Columbia ML-4855] (69:47)
CD 8: Dover Beach (Barber, bar; Curtis St Qt) 5/13/1935 [Victor-8998]; Knoxville: Summer of 1915: original version (E. Farrell, sop; B. Herrmann, cond; CBS SO) Live broadcast: 6/19/1949; Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (E. Steber, sop; E. Biltcliffe, pn) Live: Carnegie Hall 10/1958; Knoxville: Summer of 1915: revised version (L. Price, sop; T. Schippers, cond; NY Phil) Live: Carnegie Hall 11/15/1959; Three Songs (J. Tourel, mez; Barber, cond; CBS SO) Live: 5/2/1945; MENOTTI on Barber’s 70th Birthday; Philadelphia 3/9/1980; Interview by James Fassett; New York City 3/16/1958 (79:37)
CD 9: CD-ROM: Notes on the performances in English (by Barbara Heyman) and in French (by Pierre Brevignon)
BARBER Violin Concerto.1 Symphony No. 2.2 Commando March3 ● Serge Koussevitzky, cond; Boston SO; Ruth Posselt (vn)1 ● PRISTINE PASC 217, mono (56:31) Live: Boston 1/7/1949;1 Live broadcast: Boston 3/4/1944;2 Live broadcast: Hunter College 2/12/19443
Let me be clear: These recordings are not for everybody—definitely not for those just beginning to discover and appreciate the musical output of Samuel Barber. Every work listed here is currently available on at least one or two modern recordings that offer more polished and more subtly nuanced performances than these—not to mention the considerable virtues of modern recording technology. On the other hand, listeners who are thoroughly familiar with Barber’s works and the state-of-the-art recordings of his music may find much of supplementary interest in these early recordings—most taken from live concert broadcasts, some from early LPs. (They may also be of interest to collector-devotees of the soloists or conductors involved.) An indisputable point of fascination is the fact that several of the earliest recordings here document “original” versions of pieces that the composer subsequently revised, in which latter form they have become familiar to many listeners. Thus one can hear the original—and totally different—finale of the String Quartet, the original—and totally different—scherzo of the Symphony No. 1, as well as original versions of pieces that were modified less drastically in one way or another: e.g., the Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 2, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and others. Many will also be interested in hearing performances involving major figures not generally associated with American music—conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Charles Munch, Artur Rodzinski; and soloists like Eileen Farrell, Jennie Tourel, and Rudolf Firkusny. Then there are recordings of Barber himself conducting—and in one case singing—his own music, although these performances have been generally available on and off for the past half-century.
One factor often overlooked that distinguishes early performances like these from more recent renditions is the matter of familiarity—not just the obvious fact that at a premiere or almost-premiere, the conductor is relatively unfamiliar with the score as are the players with their parts, but, possibly more important, the players have no idea of the role played by their own parts within the ensemble as a whole. This factor renders early performances a virtually different species from performances in which all participants are familiar with the piece they are playing. Not only does this make most initial performances more bewildered than is generally recognized, but it underscores the extraordinary accomplishment when such a performance is really excellent.
In addition to the eight CDs of music, there is an additional CD-ROM which features copious program notes—97 informative pages by Barber biographer Barbara Heyman, as well as an essay in French by Pierre Brevignon. Though the set is not available through American retail outlets, it can be ordered worldwide from www.westhillradioarchives.com.
Readers will notice the appearance of an additional CD in the headnote above. The contents of that recording, recently released on the Pristine label, essentially duplicate—with one exception to be noted later—performances found on the larger set. But the recordings on the Pristine disc have been processed by the noted specialist in audio restoration Mark Obert-Thorn, and are marginally superior to those heard on the WHRA set. The Obert-Thorn restorations may be purchased from www.pristineclassical.com.
Following are observations that occurred to me while I listened to these recordings, reported in the sequence in which they appear in the set: Vanessa is Barber’s first opera, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Company, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1958. The music is gorgeous, despite a ludicrous libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, who also served as stage director of the first production. The performance offered here occurred two weeks after the premiere. The RCA recording of the complete work in its original form was made several months later, with the identical cast. Eleanor Steber, who was not the first choice for the title role, accepted the part at essentially the last minute, reportedly learning the role in six weeks. Hence the commercial recording allowed her—as well as the rest of the cast—to become more familiar and comfortable with the work. Listeners interested in hearing that original version are strongly advised to acquire the commercial recording, which has been available for most of the past 50 years. The broadcast performance heard here is of documentary value only, as it is marred by radio station interference, while Steber displays a nervous-sounding warble that is under much better control on the commercial recording. Meanwhile, listeners who want to lower their risk, while preferring to acquaint themselves with Barber’s somewhat condensed 1964 revision, are referred to the excellent, budget-priced Naxos recording, released in 2004; if they haven’t acquired it by now, confirmed devotees of the work are strongly encouraged to seek the extraordinary, full-priced edition on Chandos, released one year later.
Medea, commissioned during the mid-1940s by Martha Graham, who choreographed the work with the title Cave of the Heart, went through several stages in becoming a concert work. As specified by Graham, the music, perhaps Barber’s most aggressively dissonant score, was arranged for a small chamber ensemble, an instrumentation that underlined its debt to Stravinsky. In preparing a concert suite of about 25 minutes, Barber condensed the original somewhat, while expanding the orchestration to a typical ballet ensemble, but retaining the brittle, hard-edged sonorities of the music. It was this version that Barber used for the 1950 recording released by London/Decca, with the New Symphony Orchestra of London, under the composer’s own direction. Although Barber disliked conducting and ultimately gave it up, having decided that he lacked the gift for it, the performances on that 1950 recording are all excellent for their time, and provide useful guidance regarding tempo and phrasing. (Several years later, Mercury issued a fine stereo recording of this version, conducted by Howard Hanson.) In 1955 Barber decided to make yet another version of the work—a one-movement symphonic poem scored for full symphony orchestra. Entitled Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, this version condenses the music into about half the duration of the ballet suite, and is quite effective on its own terms. Interestingly, this fuller, richer orchestration, which omits some of the driest, sparest material, has the effect of turning a “middle-period” work into a “late-period” work (according to the divisions outlined in my book, Voices in the Wilderness). Dimitri Mitropoulos introduced the piece in this incarnation with the New York Philharmonic in 1956. This 1958 performance with the same forces is rather dull until the “Dance of Vengeance,” which projects a truly driven intensity. While the performance is somewhat important historically, the sound quality is rather poor, while today there are many recordings that far exceed this one in every way.
Barber composed his Overture to “The School for Scandal” in 1931, while still a student at the Curtis Institute. By 1942, when the performance offered here took place, the piece had already begun to become familiar. Not only is this performance messy, as compared with the brilliance and polish offered by most modern recordings, but conductor Werner Janssen deviated somewhat from the composer’s tempo indications, much to his annoyance.
Barber composed his masterly Symphony No. 1 in 1936 in Italy, where its first performance took place. Before the work was completed, Artur Rodzinski had already promised the composer that he would lead several performances with major orchestras in the United States. Barber made significant revisions of the work in 1943, so the performance Rodzinski led with the NBC Symphony in 1938 presented the rarely-heard first version. As mentioned earlier, the original and rather Tchaikovskian scherzo section would be replaced by entirely different material—except for a few measures toward the middle. There was some tightening of the first section as well. Some passages of this performance are played with passion and conviction, while at other times the orchestra seems oblivious to what is going on. The revised—and final—version of the work was introduced by Bruno Walter and the Philadelphia Orchestra in February, 1944. The performance offered here, with the New York Philharmonic, took place the following month. This may be regarded as Walter’s definitive interpretation of the work, because the commercial recording he made shortly thereafter was marred by tempos distorted to accommodate the time limits of 78 rpm recording.
Now we turn to one of the truly “legendary” performances: the premiere of the Adagio for Strings, from the NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast of November 5, 1938. Although this is not its first appearance on compact disc, listeners coming to it afresh will inevitably find it fascinating to hear the piece without the accretion of decades of lachrymose associations. Not surprisingly, Toscanini’s tempo is brisk and relatively unsentimental, lasting just over seven minutes. (Today’s norm is eight or nine minutes, with Bernstein taking ten). He also brings out the alto line more prominently than we are accustomed to hearing. One can’t help but wonder whether the musicians had any idea that they were launching what was to become a true classic.
Toscanini’s premier reading of the Essay No. 1 from that same concert is also of interest—in particular, because Barber did some post-premiere tightening of this piece as well, omitting some music I found rather beautiful. The conductor also added trumpet to the strings on the last note—a change that Barber did not incorporate into his final version. Toscanini takes the scherzo section quite briskly—faster than we are accustomed to hearing—but the orchestra manages to comply with precision.
The premiere of Essay No. 2 was given by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bruno Walter in April, 1942. That performance, which again includes a few measures that Barber subsequently eliminated, was fair enough. The work itself is a difficult one to bring off satisfactorily, as it has a great deal to say, but does not allow enough time to say it adequately. Although there is much in it that is very beautiful and moving, the piece is one of Barber’s few miscalculations. And Walter offered nothing in the way of “old world” insight to redeem it.
Commando March was composed in 1943, during Barber’s period of military service. As a military march it is quite sophisticated musically, but rather epicene in expression. Originally scored for wind band, it was orchestrated soon afterward by the composer at Koussevitzky’s suggestion. The performance here features the Boston Symphony, playing it the day after its orchestral premiere. The rendition on the Pristine disc features the same performers, taken from a concert more than three months later. This reading is notably superior as both a performance and a recording.
The Symphony No. 2, initially completed in 1944, was Barber’s main contribution to the war effort; the words “dedicated to the Army Air Forces” were originally appended to the title. Because Barber was nationally recognized as one of America’s most important composers at the time, his effort—both during and after its completion—was the focus of much national attention beyond the music-related media. As is so often the case with attempts to interest the general public in an abstract, “classical” piece of music, much was made of extramusical factors. Barber supposedly sought to capture the feelings of the men of the Air Force in flight, and was taken up in the air so that he could experience this himself. Also, to underline its modernity Barber was persuaded to include in the scoring a sound produced by an electronic tone generator designed by Bell Labs.
In addition to its patriotic intentions, the symphony can also be viewed as Barber’s contribution to “the Great American Symphony,” i.e., a work that might be positively associated with the nation’s spiritual identity at the time. (See Nicholas Tawa’s book The Great American Symphony: Music, the Depression, and War .) This was a pre-occupation of many composers during the 1940s. Barber’s symphony proved to be one of his most problematic works—one with which he was initially disappointed, subsequently revised to his temporary satisfaction, conducted on recording, then ultimately withdrew, although it was revived during the late 1980s, with the approval of his estate, and has since been performed and recorded several times. Despite Barber’s ambivalence about the work, it stands among the finest of those American symphonies of the 1940s. For all these reasons, the work’s presentation at the hands of Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, broadcast nationwide on March 4, 1944—the day after the premiere—is another performance that may justly be termed “legendary.” The sound quality on the large set is not too bad, though slightly better on the Pristine release, where noise-reduction seems to have been used more aggressively. Nevertheless, this is still an AM radio broadcast of a symphony orchestra. The much-discussed electronic tone, used in only a portion of the second movement, can barely be heard.
In his 1947 revision, Barber replaced the electronic tone with an E-flat clarinet, and removed the dedication, thereby eliminating all extramusical association; the first movement was tightened, giving it more focus, while an eerie epilogue was added to the finale, just before the affirmative conclusion. This epilogue adds an interesting dimension, although the movement as a whole remains the weakest portion of the symphony, with a good deal of pointless “noodling” and empty bluster. But at this point Barber was content enough with his revision to include it on the aforementioned London/Decca recording of 1950, featuring works conducted by the composer. That performance makes a strong case for the work, although nowhere near as convincingly as the recent recordings conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos or by Marin Alsop on Naxos. Also included on the WHRA set is a sizable portion of Barber’s rehearsal of the revised version with the Boston Symphony in 1951. It is certainly interesting to hear. Although he claimed to have the personal projection of “a baby skunk,” Barber clearly knew what he wanted, and was able to express himself forcefully, although he sounds rather priggish in the process.
Die Natali is Barber’s Christmas piece, composed in 1960 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose performance the day after the premiere is heard here. In creating his medley of holiday favorites, Barber’s chief concern seemed to be the avoidance of cliché, and in this he succeeded admirably. I know of no other work of its genre that is so tasteful and sophisticated, both musically and expressively. Charles Munch and the orchestra offer a lovely, sensitive performance, and the 1960 FM broadcast provides better sound quality than most of the recordings in this compilation.
Prayers of Kierkegaard is considered by many, myself included, to be Barber’s greatest work. Another piece written for the Boston Symphony, it is a profoundly haunting evocation of spiritual feelings both ancient and modern, experienced virtually simultaneously. This first performance is one of the more valuable ones in the set: Although the Boston Cecilia Society Chorus seemed to have real difficulty with the work’s harmonic language, about which Barber expressed considerable dissatisfaction, the lengthy soprano solo in the second section, composed with Leontyne Price’s voice in mind, is sung magnificently by her. Though often relegated to a member of the soprano section, the solo here takes on the grand stature of a passionate operatic aria, yet without upsetting the work’s overall expressive balance. Robert Shaw’s performance with the Atlanta Symphony or Andrew Schenck’s with the Chicago Symphony are essential acquisitions, but this one is an indispensable secondary reading, simply for Price’s glorious contribution.
Another performance of particular interest is the 1941 world premiere of Barber’s Violin Concerto, played by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Spalding’s performance is impassioned, and his reading of the third movement is remarkably proficient, especially in light of the work’s unfamiliarity at the time, although the sound quality is quite compromised. But the chief point of interest here is that it is another “original version,” performed prior to subsequent revisions. In this case the revisions are relatively modest, amounting to a tightening of each movement, but it is interesting to note the composer’s high standards, as he continued to eliminate anything he found superfluous, even after a work’s premiere.
The set also includes the premiere of the revised Violin Concerto, featuring violinist Ruth Posselt and the Boston Symphony, under Koussevitzky’s direction. Posselt’s rendition of the solo part is excellent, and the performance is decent overall, especially the third movement. But a flagrant wrong note in the bass section of the orchestra (I do not have a score at hand) provides a bit of a jolt during the first movement. This performance is also included on the Pristine disc, where the sound quality is somewhat better.
The Capricorn Concerto is one of Barber’s weakest and least convincing pieces—a shameless imitation of Stravinsky. But the taut performance he conducted for a radio broadcast, featuring “Mitch” Miller as oboe soloist, along with flautist Julius Baker and trumpet player Harry Freistadt, makes the best case for it.
Although I seem to be in the minority among critics, I have always found Barber’s Cello Concerto to be overly discursive and unfocused (it might have benefitted from the “tightening” he applied to other works). Nevertheless it has some lovely thematic ideas and an especially beautiful slow movement. The performance here is taken from that composer-conducted recording made in London in 1950. Therefore the sound quality is superior to many of the earlier broadcast recordings. The soloist is Zara Nelsova, a superb cellist comparable to the best of her generation, although she never achieved the prominence of her male counterparts. Her performance here is extraordinary.
The Cello Sonata appeared a decade earlier than the Concerto, composed shortly after Barber’s graduation from the Curtis Institute. It was written for Orlando Cole, a close friend from Curtis whom the composer consulted frequently while he was working on it. Although the Sonata reveals the strong influence of Brahms, I prefer it to the Concerto, as I find it a more sincere and intimate work. Dating from 1932, it has gone on to become a classic of the cello and piano repertoire. Cole performs it here, accompanied by Vladimir Sokoloff, from a concert that took place at Curtis in 1973. As such it is something of a retrospective reading, played with solid conviction and technical precision. Cole offers a brief spoken reminiscence of Barber before the performance.
Cole was also the cellist of the Curtis String Quartet in the premieres of Barber’s Quartet and Dover Beach, as well as on the composer’s own recording of the latter piece. The reading of the String Quartet heard here is another that offers the insight of an “original version.” Performed with fervent intensity at a Curtis concert in 1938, the work was still new, without the significant revisions that altered its entire shape. Although the famous “Adagio” movement remained unchanged (he had written to Cole on the day he completed it, “It is a knock-out!”), both the first and third movement underwent significant revision. The first movement was originally much longer and looser in its treatment of the material. The third movement, now essentially a brief recapitulation of the first movement, was originally based on entirely different—and remarkably uninteresting—material. As odd as the revised Quartet’s overall form may be, the work is better without the original finale.
Like the Capricorn Concerto, the four Excursions for piano solo represent another one of Barber’s less successful efforts at broadening his expressive range—in this case, an attempt to adapt vernacular American styles to his own purposes. And, like the Commando March (all three pieces were composed in 1943-44), it creates the impression of an overly fastidious venture into more “macho” territory. Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny recorded the work for Columbia in 1950. His performance is tasteful and technically flawless, although it matches Barber in its complete absence of a truly American vernacular flavor.
Another of Barber’s “outside the box” efforts is Souvenirs, an affectionate evocation of the atmosphere of the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel in New York, shortly before World War I. This context was closer to Barber’s own realm of experience, and the piece is successful on its own terms. Originally written as a diversion for piano, four hands, it was subsequently choreographed as a ballet, and was transcribed variously for a single pianist, for two pianos, and for orchestra. The piano duo Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale recorded the two-piano version for Columbia in 1952. Their reading is rather brusque and gruff, driven a little too hard. A much more tasteful and effective performance (of the original version) was recorded by John Browning and Leonard Slatkin for RCA in 1991.
Barber composed his setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem Dover Beach when he was 21, and it may be considered his first truly great work. His evocation of the high-minded despair inherent in the poem, and its expression of yearning for the security of the past are themes that would recur throughout his career. Barber, a trained baritone, recorded the work with the Curtis String Quartet in 1935 for RCA Victor. That recording has been readily available through many reissues over the past decades. I suppose that some may prefer more recent recordings, such as Thomas Hampson’s on the DGG set of Barber’s songs. But this early recording, which comes through with surprising clarity, is my favorite, perhaps for sentimental reasons. But hearing the composer project the feelings expressed in the work through a vehicle as personal as his own voice cannot be duplicated.
One of Barber’s most enduring successes is his setting of James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and we are treated to three different performances of that work. I must admit that of all the performances on this set the one that excited me the most to encounter, and the one I was most eager to hear, was the performance of Knoxville in its original scoring for full symphony orchestra, sung by Eileen Farrell, and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Taken from a 1949 live broadcast, the sound quality is pretty bad. Nevertheless, the performance is fascinating. For one reason, Eileen Farrell had the most beautiful soprano voice I’ve ever heard, and to experience that voice in this very familiar work is thrilling. What versatility! And together with the large orchestra, the impact is extraordinarily dramatic, although I am not arguing that this is the “right” way to hear it. There have been many fine performances of Knoxville, and I’m not about to call this my favorite version. But it is definitely one I am glad to have.
Interesting as a curiosity is a live performance by Eleanor Steber taken from a 1958 Carnegie Hall recital, with pianist Edward Biltcliffe. Knoxville was written for Steber, and she offered a beautiful performance, but with piano accompaniment I would expect only Steber fanatics to be interested. Another curiosity is a lovely reading by Leontyne Price, from a 1959 performance with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Schippers. But her commercial recording from 1968 with the New Philharmonia under the same conductor is another one of the best performances of the piece, rendering this one, like the Steber, somewhat superfluous.
During the mid-1940s Barber orchestrated several of his better-known songs. Featured here are “Sure, on This Shining Night,” “Nocturne,” and “I Hear an Army,” sung by Jennie Tourel in a 1945 broadcast. The performances may have been good, but, unfortunately, there is severe audio distortion at melodic highpoints, which forfeits any potential listening pleasure.
The set concludes with two spoken items of memorabilia. One is a 6-minute commentary by Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber’s longtime partner, on the occasion of the latter’s 70th birthday celebration at the Curtis Institute. Menotti recalls how warmly he had been embraced by Barber’s family while the two were still Curtis students. He also mentions Barber’s intense devotion to the music of Brahms, of which Menotti had been completely ignorant before they met, Italy never having been receptive to either Brahms or to German Lieder in general. These were milestone discoveries for Menotti. This reminiscence is followed by a 10-minute interview of Barber by James Fassett, during the intermission of the New York Philharmonic concert in 1958, when Mitropoulos conducted Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance—a performance included in this set. Barber talks about his impressions of Greece, and how his sense of that culture was incorporated into his Medea music.
In summary, a must for committed Barber aficionados; overkill perhaps for others.