BARBER Essays for Orchestra: Nos. 1, 2, 3. Vanessa: Two Excerpts. Music for a Scene from Shelley. Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance.

BARBER Essays for Orchestra: Nos. 1, 2, 3. Vanessa: Two Excerpts. Music for a Scene from Shelley. Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance – Neeme Järvi, cond; Detroit SO – CHANDOS CHAN-9908 (60:20)

This new all-Barber release is conflated from two previous CDs originally issued during the early 1990s: CHAN 9053, which also offered Ives’s First Symphony, and CHAN 9253, which featured Chadwick’s Third Symphony. At this point there are all-Barber orchestral CDs aplenty, featuring more or less the same contents, with minor variations. Because the composer’s shorter orchestral works are all gems in their own ways, and because they cannot all be fit on a single CD, more than one disc is necessary, and some duplication is inevitable. Most of the available performances are at least adequate, although few scale the heights by revealing vistas of interpretive insight as yet unglimpsed. In other words, certain routine approaches have developed around these works, which parallel rather shallow conceptualizations of them—often echoed in fatuous program notes—and prevent them from achieving their fullest realization. The Järvi performances offered here do not rise above the routine, for the most part, and do not represent most of the pieces to their best advantage. This is especially true for the three Essays for Orchestra.

Barber’s orchestral textures have a tendency to be a bit muddied by congested  string figurations, which can submerge contrapuntal lines and blur the outlines of phrases. Most conductors seem to (metaphorically speaking) shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, he’s a romantic; I guess he wanted that kind of rich sound.” Then they just dive in and wallow. But that is not the best way to handle the earlier works. They require an approach that tailors and shapes them in such a way that contrapuntal lines and the articulation of phrases are clear. Unfortunately, Järvi is a wallower, tending toward a very soft-edged, von Karajan-like articulation that is wrong for Barber. His reading of the elegiac first Essay is sludgy, and he takes the allegro section too slowly, robbing it of its Mendelssohnian airiness. There is the same lack of textural clarity in the more monumental Essay No. 2, but here he ambles through the majestic concluding hymn with a perfunctory lack of sensitivity to the psycho-emotional structure of the piece. Essay No. 3 really has some formal weaknesses that need to be addressed by a conductor sensitive to where the music is headed and how best to lead the way. Like most of Barber’s later abstract music, the work is fundamentally an evocation of mood—a complex mood in which hedonistic pleasure is subtly blended with veins of ennui and remorse. Played without a clear understanding of all this, the music can easily seem unfocused and belabored. And that is exactly how Järvi plays it, like a dog on a leash who keeps stopping to sniff at distracting stimuli along the way.

The three Essays are also available on an all-Barber disc from EMI (CDC7 49463 2), with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. (I believe that this release was out of print for a while, but is now available again.) This is probably the best single CD devoted to Barber’s short orchestral works, offering convincing presentations of all three Essays. Slatkin’s disc also includes excellent readings of Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, the Overture to “The School for Scandal,” and the ubiquitous Adagio. But it doesn’t have the early tone poem, Music for a Scene from Shelley, another magnificent mood-painting that requires some interpretive intervention.

Written when Barber was 23, even before the Essay No. 1Music for a Scene from Shelley is Barber’s first attempt at pure mood-painting, and its Gothic evocation of terror and dread in apprehending the approach of some ominous apparition is quite unforgettable. (I have never been able to relate my perception of it to the “Scene from Shelley” cited by the composer, but we needn’t worry about that.) Comparable in dimension to the Essays, it subjects a paucity of thematic material to minimal true development, heightening emotional intensity by simply extending the motifs through re-orchestrated and re-textured repetitions at gradually increasing dynamic levels. It is Barber’s exquisite sensitivity to mood that enables him to achieve such a powerful expression, but comparable sensitivity in dramatic pacing is required from the conductor in order to achieve the full effect. Unfortunately Järvi disappoints once again, phrasing too broadly and milking for too much richness of texture. In this work the standard has been set by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, who offer a reading of tremendous power on another one of the most astutely shaped all-Barber programs (Argo 436 288-2).

Järvi’s disc also includes two orchestral excerpts from Barber’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Vanessa: the “Intermezzo” from the third act, and an arrangement of the aria, “Under the Willow Tree” from the first act. The latter is a campy waltz—likened by David Johnson to “an escapee from a Mittel-Europeanische operetta”—which displays the side of the composer’s aesthetic identity that I find least appealing. But the “Intermezzo” is a gorgeous example of what Peter Rabinowitz called “the intoxicating, but disorienting, mixture of sentiment and sinister decadence that gives this music its ambiguous power.” Järvi’s interpretive approach is ideally suited for the sensuous opulence of this excerpt, making it the high point of the disc. (Perhaps I should add that both my colleagues [Fanfare 18:2] were considerably more enthusiastic about the rest of these performances than I.)

Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance is a brilliant and often exciting realization of the sort of luxuriant, richly evocative adaptation of Stravinsky’s primitivist neoclassicism that Barber explored during the 1940s. The performance offered here is comparable in approach and execution to the other major renditions currently available on recording.

I cannot help but comment on some foolish remarks that appear in the program notes, attributed to Bill F. Faucett and Michael Fleming. They indicate how poorly Barber’s seemingly straightforward music is understood even today. Perhaps the fact that Fleming describes the mood of the lush Essay No. 3 as “contentious throughout” may be chalked up to a difference in subjective reactions. But consider Faucett’s comment, “While much of [Vanessa] is written in a late-nineteenth-century vein, it is at times unmistakably modern,” in light of his remark that Music for a Scene from Shelley “does little to alter the common belief that [Barber] was a ‘neo-Romantic’ composer.” First of all, who is trying to alter the belief that Barber was a “neo-Romantic” composer? Certainly not Barber. And why would one want to? He was a “neo-Romantic” composer. (Actually, “20th-century romantic” is a more accurate term, although “neo-Romantic” is more commonly used.) And if what he means is that Vanessa embraces aesthetic values that were more pervasive during the late 19th century, he is right. But it isn’t as though some parts sound “late-nineteenth century,” while others sound “modern.” There isn’t a five-minute stretch in Vanessathat could be attributed to the 19th century (aside from the aforementioned “Willow Tree” number). It all sounds “unmistakably modern,” while reflecting late-romantic aesthetic values. And that is what is generally meant by “neo-Romantic.” Get the point?