BARBER: Essay No. 3, Op. 47. CORIGLIANO: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra

BARBER: Essay No. 3, Op. 47. CORIGLIANO: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra.Stanley Drucker, clarinet; New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. NEW WORLD RECORDS NW-309, produced by Andrew Kazdin, $8.98 (available from: New World Records, 3 East 54th Street, New York, NY 10022).

Samuel Barber completed his Essay No. 3 in 1978, and it proved to be his last major work, as the composer died in January of this year, after a long illness. The current availability of recordings of most of Barber’s music, from Op. 1 through Op. 47, enables us to consider fully the fruits of the long career of one of America’s most distinguished composers.

The most characteristic trait of Barber’s music is an elegiac lyricism often inspired explicitly by literary sources, and usually built around long, beautifully expressive lines notable for their purity and independence from traditional melodic wellsprings (e.g., folk melos, Italian opera, German Lied, etc.). The meticulous spinning of such melodies, of which a representative example is the slow movement of the Violin Concerto, remained Barber’s greatest gift. During the 1930s. the composer’s most fertile period, he enlarged this melodic affinity to embrace a more extroverted, even melodramatic emotionalism, and this remained an important aspect of much of his best music, from Music for a Scene from Shelley through Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra.

However, Barber was at times led to drift outside his areas of greatest strength, and the results were often disappointing. If he was at his best in capturing and depicting moods and emotional states, the characteristic brevity of most of his music was but one indication of a difficulty in sustaining musical structures-particularly larger forms. When he explored a bracing, angular language, applying it in abstract contexts, e.g., the Cello Concerto,Capricorn Concerto, Piano Sonata, to name a few, the results often rang false, lacking both conviction and cohesion. This problem seemed to grow worse as he grew older, although some later works were exceptionally fine, such as the opera Antony and Cleopatra in its final, revised form.

Barber’s sensitive temperament was particularly vulnerable to the scorn which developed over the years in reaction to his just, if easily won, early success — especially as musical fashions became increasingly hostile toward his brand of lush romanticism. The overwhelmingly negative response to the 1966 premiere of Antony and Cleopatra which opened the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, was particularly devastating although much of the criticism was directed toward extramusical factors. Many of Barber’s works — the Adagio for Strings, Violin Concerto, Knoxville: Summer o f 1915, among others — retained an uninterrupted popularity, but the negative criticism seemed to exert a disproportionate influence on his creative equilibrium. Perhaps due also to the onset of serious illness, his last works seem somehow to echo half-heartedly the gestures of his earlier days.

Such is the case with the Essay No. 3, a work that looks back past the neoclassically influenced works of his last 30 years to the rhapsodic grandiloquence of the two earlyEssays. But lacking the cumulative, episodic drama of those great pieces, it simply parades a couple of attractive themes through a lavish orchestral wardrobe, eventually arriving at an opulent but obligatory climax whose paralyzed harmonic motion is ultimately frustrating. There is something sad, if not pathetic, in all this — something, as Mann perceived so profoundly in Deatb in Venice, that haunts every Romantic who lives past the age of 33.

Yet I have no doubt about the extraordinary value of Barber’s achievement, considered in toto. Fully half of his entire output. including works in all the media in which he worked — the Symphony No. 1, Essays Nos. 1 and 2, the operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatrachoral works like the Prayers of Kierkegaard and the a capella Reincarnations, the balletMedea, chamber works like the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet, at least a dozen of the songs, and various other pieces — stand among the most universally communicative, deeply moving music our century has produced.

The pairing of music by Barber and John Corigliano is particularly appropriate, as the latter occupies in many ways a parallel place in the music world of today to that occupied by Barber in the past generation. Thus it is interesting to compare the evolution of the younger man’s career in, light of one of his acknowledged mentors. Corighano, too, has achieved enormous public success, which seems to grow with every year, becoming a favored figure among major musical institutions, from which he has received some highly prestigious commissions. Of course, the primary difference between the two lies in the actual substance of their music. although both are communicative composers whose music is clearly directed toward reaching an audience. But in place of Barber’s intimate personal confessions, Corigliano has developed an intentionally impersonal approach, involving pastiches drawn from an enormous array of sound sources, including serialism, chance, tonality, folk music, quotations, or anything else. (“If I have my own style, I’m not aware of it.”) His is a theatrical eclecticism that suggests, more than anyone else, another of his mentors. Leonard Bernstein. minus the jazz, Judaism, and obvious tunes. 

Indeed, Bernstein conducted the premiere of Corigliano’s 1977 Clarinet Concerto, although Mehta directs this recording. The Concerto actually sounds quite similar to Corigliano’s score for the film Altered States, with its chaotic, brilliantly colored frenzy. Containing everything from Gabrieli fragments and antiphonal effects achieved by special seating to 12-tone rows blazing in giant fireballs of sound, the Concerto whips up a tremendous amount of activity, which, in a stunning performance like this, is enormously effective. Despite a subdued, somber, slow movement, the work is so concentrated with “events” that the listener’s attention never flags, although one may question whether the piece ultimately amounts to any more than a sort of psychedelic light-show for the ears.

This release, offering two recent works new to records, is another valuable addition to the New World “Recorded Anthology of American Music.” As in previous releases, program notes are copious and highly informative. However, annotator Phillip Ramey, who brings sympathy and knowledge to his role as explicator of the “established traditionalists”– Copland, Barber, Schuman, Bernstein, Corighano — presenting these often poorly understood composers in an intelligent, revealing light, ought to resist the temptation to indulge his own vanity by littering his otherwise valuable interviews with irrelevant personal trivia.

Long may this series of recordings flourish; for the surface of American music has thus far only been scratched. In fact, without in any way belittling the efforts of New World Records, I must note that many of the greatest achievements in American symphonic music — especially those not part of any well-publicized faction of the modern music scene — are still largely untouched by all the record companies specializing in American music.