BARBER: Symphony No. 2. Adagio for Strings. BRISTOW: Symphony in F-sharp minor, Op. 26. Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. CHANDOS CHAN-9169 [DDDI; 72:37. Produced by Ralph Couzens and Charles Greenwell.
Barber’s Second Symphony reappeared on recording in 1989, after an absence of nearly 40 years, in a performance by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Andrew Schenck (who died last year) on the Stradivari label (SCD-8012). At that time I discussed the history of the work, possible reasons for Barber’s misgivings about it, and my own reaction to it from today’s standpoint (“Samuel Barber: A Once-Suppressed Symphony…”Fanfare 12:6, pp. 54ff), and I refer the interested reader to that article. Re-reading it myself, and listening to this new recording, I note that my opinion of the work hasn’t changed, so I will take the liberty of quoting some of those comments: “Though the Symphony No. 2 may not be the most authentic product of Barber’s inner character, … this factor does not necessarily diminish the experience of the work for the listener…From the expansive theme that opens the first movement, one encounters an assertive tone — even an aggressiveness — virtually unprecedented in the composer’s work, somewhat akin in spirit to the opening of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony and in language to the first movement of Prokofiev’s Sixth …. The first movement as a whole is gripping throughout — taut, virile, solidly and tightly — if conventionally — structured…. A distinctly American quality, not previously heard in Barber’s music, appears throughout the work….[In the second movement) “the Americana flavor comes to the fore, with a wistful, nostalgic poignancy that he later developed in Knoxville and other works.
“The third movement brings a renewed sense of determination and militance. In a sense, this is the most ‘abstract’ movement, with contrapuntal passages that bring both Harris and Hindemith to mind, as well as a Walton-like glibness that robs the triumphant conclusion of some of its power and conviction.
“On the whole, however, this is a work that ranks without apology alongside the best American symphonies of the (1940s). In it Barber explored a harsher, more athletic, and more extroverted type of expression than he had in the past. He also produced a fine symphonic structure — more ambitious and complex than its predecessor — and this was no minor accomplishment for a composer who was rarely at his best in extended abstract works.”
I found the New Zealand reading to be “a stunning performance and a tremendously convincing argument on behalf of the work itself. I suspect that as a result of this release Barber’s Symphony No. 2 will return to the active repertoire.”
The new performance, featuring the Detroit Symphony under the direction of Neeme Jarvi, is predictably tighter and more polished than the New Zealand rendition — but not by such a wide margin. The Chandos sound quality is, however, significantly more resounding than the Stradivari.
Chandos and Jarvi have chosen as a discmate to the Barber Second the Symphony (No. 3?) in F-sharp minor by George Frederick Bristow, one of America’s more prominent musicians during the middle of the 19th century. In addition to composing, Bristow played violin in the New York Philharmonic, was active as a conductor and an educator, and advocated vigorously for the performance of music by Americans. Though his lifetime coincided with those of Franck and Bruckner, his own music calls to mind more the works of Mendelssohn and Schumann — or perhaps their lesser contemporaries.
I must confess that listening a few times to Bristow’s 1858 symphony was something of a chore, as I found it almost impossible to remain focused on it, except when jarred to attention by the awkward and incongruous junctures that hold its patches of predictable banalities together. The harp makes some unexpected appearances as well. That relatively small number of listeners interested in a historical perspective on American music will probably want to hear what Bristow’s music sounds like and, I must say, Jarvi and his Detroit musicians play the piece with tremendous conviction. But for most listeners, the pairing is rather unfortunate.
In view of the foregoing, and despite Detroit’s superior performance of the Barber Second, I would urge those not yet familiar with this work to obtain the budget-priced all-Barber program on Stradivari.