BARBER: Medea (Orchestral Suite). Essay No. 3. Fadograph of a Yestern Scene. Medea (Original Ballet). COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (Original Ballet).

BARBER: Medea (Orchestral Suite). Essay No. 3. Fadograph of a Yestern Scene. Andrew Schenck conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7010-2 [DDD]; 46:38. Produced by Michael Fine.

BARBER: Medea (Original Ballet). COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (Original Ballet). Andrew Schenck conducting the Atlantic Sinfonietta. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7019-2 [DDD]; 61:48. Produced by Michael Fine.

The 1946 score for Martha Graham’s choreographic work Cave of the Heart was Samuel Barber’s first attempt at a modern evocation of ancient classical subject numer. (Later examples include Andromache’s Farewell and, of course, Antonv and Cleopatra.) This music is most familiar through the expanded thirteen-minute symphonic excerpt known as Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (the title later abbreviated simply to Medea’s Dance of Vengeance). However Barber also fashioned a seven-movement suite for symphony orchestra called Medea, which contains a great deal of vital, expressive music, remarkable for a sinewy power and astringent bite quite uncharacteristic of the composer. This orchestral suite has been recorded twice, as far as I know: first around 1950, on a London LP under the direction of the composer himself; then. about a decade later in a stunning performance by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. (This recording, in one of its many reincarnations, may still be available on LP.) Then there is also the original ballet music, scored for a chamber ensemble of fourteen instruments. This version, which contains only a few minutes of music not included in the orchestral suite, has never been recorded before. Now KOCH International Classics, continuing its comprehensive survey of Barber’s choral and orchestral music (see Fanfare 14:2, pp. 54ff), has released performances of both the orchestral suite of music from Medea and the original ballet suite virtually simultaneously(!). Though such completeness is certainly welcomed by all Barber specialists, my guess is that most general listeners will probably try to select one of the two.

As conductor Andrew Schenck notes, in the article just cited, “Michael Fine, KOCH International’s producer) and I are still talking about how every time we hear the chamber version there is a terrifying intimacy you don’t get in the big version, and every time we hear the big version we say, Oh boy, this is such grand, tragic stuff, you get the feeling that Barber meant it this way even though he originally wrote it for small orchestra.” This statement pretty much captures my reaction as well. I might add that the influence of Stravinsky, which is strongly present throughout the score, is considerably more salient in the smaller orchestration, with its dry, acerbic sonorities. In addition, the Atlantic Sinfonietta, composed of a dozen-plus New York freelancers, appears to be quite a tight, well-honed ensemble. On the other hand, the New Zealand Symphony, while offering a solid, committed performance, lacks the desirable urgency and tautness. (Given the current level of interest in Barber and the significance of Medea in his output, the incisive Hanson/Eastman performance of the orchestral suite is an ideal candidate for CD reissue.)

The 1970s marked the nadir of Barber’s critical reputation and the works he composed after the Antony and Cleopatra debacle — eg., The LoversFadograph of a Yestern Scene, andEssay No. 3 — are generally considered to be inferior efforts, lacking the freshness and conviction of their predecessors. I must confess to having contributed my share to this critical consensus. However, continued study of Barber’s oeuvre has led me to reconsider these judgments. I have come to see these late works as outgrowths of a stylistic shift that began during the early 1950s, after the brief neoclassical period of the 1940s. This shift was reflected in looser forms, a more diffuse thematic focus, and a greater emphasis on mood and orchestral color, as compared with the clear structures and straightforward melodic/harmonic foundation of the more familiar early works. The later pieces call to mind filmscores from the Golden Age of Hollywood, evoking sumptuously romantic scenes and exotic, glamorous images. Indeed, at their initial appearances, these pieces were dismissed by many with the contemptuous epithet, “movie music.” However, today, when the high-flown romanticism of the great films of the late 1930s and 40s is viewed with affectionate appreciation rather than embarrassment, and the composers of their scores are admired for their skill and artistry, rather than derided as mercenary hacks, the term “movie music” does not carry the moral indictment it did twenty years ago. Moreover, in these late works, Barber evokes his moods so sensitively and eloquently, his structures are so modest and concise, and the orchestration so unerringly effective that this is indeed “cinematic music” at its most elegant, tasteful, and artistic.

Two such works for which I find a new appreciation are the 1971 Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, recorded here for the first time, and the Essay No. 3, composed seven years later, now in its third recording. The first of these takes its title from a line in Finnegan’s Wake, although I have no idea what the connection is. The piece is a seven-minute tone poem sensuous and atmospheric, with thematic references to both Antony and Cleopatra and theEssay No. 3.

I have discussed Essay No. 3 several times before in these pages. In Fanfare 12:6 (pp. 54ff), I noted that Leonard Slatkin’s performance with the St. Louis Symphony revealed a Straussian sweep and opulence that lent more character to the work than I had previously sensed. While lacking the polish and precision of that reading, Schenck’s New Zealand performance convincingly highlights the work’s virtues.

P.S. Accompanying the original version of the Medea ballet music is the late Aaron Copland’s perennially fresh Appalachian Spring in its initial scoring. Though there are several fine recordings of this version, Schenck’s reading with the Atlantic Sinfonietta ranks among them.