BARBER: Piano Works, Overture to “The School for Scandal,’ op. 5. Adagio, op. 11. Essay No. 2, op. 17. Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, op. 23. Vanessa, op. 32: Interlude. Andromache’s Farewell, op. 39. Music by MENOTTI, BERG, D’INDY.

BARBER  Interlude I, op. posth.  Excursions, op. 20. Piano Sonata, op. 26. Souvenirs, op. 28. Nocturne, op. 33. Ballade, op. 46 · Leon McCawley (pn)  · VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 45270 2 9 (69:57)

BARBER  Overture to “The School for Scandal,” op. 5. Adagio for Strings, op. 11. Essay No. 2, op. 17. Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, op. 23. Vanessa, op. 32: Interlude. Andromache’s Farewell, op. 39 &  Thomas Schippers, cond; New York Philharmonic; Columbia Symphony Orchestra; Martina Arroyo (sop) · SONY MASTERWORKS HERITAGE MHK 62837 (71:22)

& MENOTTI Amelia Goes to the Ball: Overture. BERG Wozzeck: Interlude. D’INDY Fervaal: Introduction 

In “A Continuing Reassessment of Samuel Barber” (Fanfare 20:4, pp. 84ff), I discussed an outstanding recording of the composer’s piano music played by the Bulgarian Lilia Boyadjieva.  I praised that release (Solstice SOCD-145)  as the finest representation of this repertoire currently in print.

Unfortunately, discs on the French Solstice label are difficult to find in this country, making this new Virgin Classics release, featuring the 24-year-old English pianist Leon McCawley,  a more readily accessible worthy alternative.  McCawley displays the particular combination of power and sensitivity that made Boyadjieva’s recital so impressive, although his grasp of details of expressive content is not as comprehensive as hers, nor does he generate the same incandescent level of intensity in the Sonata and the Ballade.  But on the whole his performances reflect a fluent mastery of the various idioms employed by Barber, from the tender-footed Excursionsinto vernacular Americana and the epicene charm of Souvenirs, to the limpid romanticism of the Nocturne; and he is more successful than most at integrating the ultimately irreconcilable stylistic incongruities of the Sonata into a unified entity.

While Boyadjieva omitted Souvenirs from her recital, in favor of a number of early pieces, never recorded before, McCawley includes the beautiful — if very  Brahmsian —Interlude I, the most impressive of these previously unpublished works.  This piece, unknown to most just a few years ago, appears to be rapidly entering the repertoire, with three recordings to date.

The Sony disc, part of the “Masterworks Heritage Series,” comes in a deluxe package with high-quality paper, quite a few handsome photos, and essays by both Gian Carlo Menotti and Tim Page.  The body of the recording  is derived from Schippers’s 1965 Columbia LP, later reissued on the Odyssey line, which featured the first four works in the headnote above.  At that time, Schippers was generally regarded as Barber’s foremost interpreter (among conductors), and those were pretty much the definitive recordings of each work.  Interestingly, despite this advocacy and the fact that the two men traveled in the same social circles, there was little personal affinity between them.  Page quotes Schippers as saying, “Sam and I have never gotten along. . . . Our wavelengths have never met.”

Barber’s reputation and his recorded representation have come a long way during the past 30+ years.  Some of these Schippers performances remain impressive, while others have been superseded by the efforts of a later generation of conductors, most notably Leonard Slatkin.  (I also strongly recommend David Zinman’s Barber program with the Baltimore Symphony on Argo 436288-2.)  Schippers’s 1965 reading of the “School for Scandal” Overture, for example,still sounds fresh, brilliantly capturing the work’s youthful verve.  However, recent recordings of the Medea excerpt and the Essay No. 2 have benefitted from the performers’ greater familiarity with the works, while more effectively reconciling some awkward structural junctures.

The brief but lusciously sensuous “Intermezzo” from Vanessa, recorded in 1960, sounds rather muddy and under-rehearsed here; I prefer Järvi’s reading with the Detroit Symphony on Chandos.  (Of course, no admirer of Barber’s music can overlook the complete recording of this gorgeous opera, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, on RCA Gold Seal 7899-2-RG.)

Barber composed Andromache’s Farewell in 1962 for the opening season of New York’s Lincoln Center, where it was introduced by Martina Arroyo and the New York Philharmonic under Schippers’s direction and recorded by them soon after.  This grandly impassioned scena is one of the less well-known masterpieces of Barber’s later years.  It has enjoyed only one other recording, by Roberta Alexander with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic under the direction of Edo DeWaart (Etcetera KTC 1145).  That is a fine all-Barber disc of music for soprano and orchestra, but Arroyo was at the top of her form when she made her recording in 1963, and Schippers matched her in a reading of electrifying intensity that to me seems definitive for all time (as does the Browning/Szell/Cleveland recording of the Piano Concerto from about the same time, which has not, I believe, been reissued on CD).  Now the Arroyo/Schippers recording of Andromache’s Farewell may also still be available on a Masterworks “Portrait” disc (MPK 46727), along with memorable performances of other Barber works by Steber, Fischer-Dieskau, and Leontyne Price.

Sony has included as fillers fine performances of three non-Barber operatic extracts, not frequently encountered.  The effervescent, Russian-flavored overture to Menotti’s first opera receives an absolutely sizzling reading, and, for some reason, the 36-year-old recording sounds as if it were made yesterday.  Poles apart temperamentally, the gloomy, brooding orchestral interlude from the end of Act III of Wozzeck makes a terrific impact.  (How often have Menotti and Berg appeared on the same disc?)  On the other hand, the rather Delian introduction to d’Indy’s opera Fervaal is so anemic in musical content that it makes hardly any impact at all; I can’t say that it whets my appetite to hear the rest of the work.