BARBER: Symphony No. 1. Essays for Orchestra: No. 1; No. 2. Music for a Scene from Shelley. Overture to ‘The School for Scandal”. Adagio for Strings

BARBER: Symphony No. 1. Essays for Orchestra: No. 1; No. 2. Music for a Scene from Shelley. Overture to ‘The School for Scandal”. Adagio for Strings. David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. ARGO 436 288-2 [DDD]; 64:17. Produced by Chris Hazell.

This is the latest of several recent compilations featuring Samuel Barber’s early orchestral works — the pieces that brought him to prominence while still in his twenties, and secured his reputation as a major American compositional voice during the 1930s. Always exhibiting a dignified, refined sensibility, these pieces are essentially tone poems without programs, or, perhaps, hypothetical filmscores — successions of mood paintings and dramatic episodes. The emphasis is always on melody — usually bittersweet, mood — usually elegiac and emotion — warm but reserved, although each work is structured solidly and rationally enough to sustain coherency and interest throughout its brief duration. The lengthier Symphony No. 1 displays a greater formal rigor commensurate with its more ambitious aspirations.

Though to some extent redundant, each of the recent all-Barber orchestral compilations offers some reason to recommend it: the Slatkin/St. Louis disc (EMI CDC7-49463 2) offers the best recorded performance of the Essay No. 3; the Schenck/New Zealand disc (Stradivari SCD-8012) offers the once-suppressed Symphony No. 2; the Levi/Atlanta disc (Telarc CD-80250) provides the best sound quality and a lovely rendition of Knoxville: Summer of 1915.  This new Argo disc features dynamic, well-paced, tightly-shaped, and well-executed performances. However, its special claim is a stunning version of Music for A Scene from Shelley.   This 9-minute work from 1933, inspired by a passage from Prometheus Unbound, relies somewhat less on melody, and, perhaps because of that, is heard somewhat less often than its companion pieces. But it is a particularly haunting mood-painting, darkly gothic in tone.  Though its suitability for the Shelley passage might be questioned, it would be the ideal accompaniment for a film depicting some horrifying event set in an old castle in 19th-century England. The piece builds to a blood-curdling climax, which Zinman shapes for maximum impact, creating a more powerful statement than any previous recording of the work.