BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Antony and Cleopatra: Two Scenes. Leontyne Price, soprano; New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Thomas Schippers. RCA GOLD SEAL AGL1-5221 , reissue produced by Leroy Parkins, $5.98
BARBER: Essay No. 1. Capricorn Concerto. COPLAND: Prairie Journal. An Outdoor Overture. Louise DiTullio, flute; Allan Vogel, oboe; Anthony Plog, trumpet (Concerto); Pacific Symphony Orchestra conducted by Keith Clark. ANDANTE AD-72406 (digital), produced by Keith Clark, $10.58 [distributed by Sine Qua Non].
BARBER: Three Songs, Op. 45. Two Songs. WOLF (arr. C. Adam): Mörike Lieder:Selections. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Charles Wadsworth, piano (Barber); Juilliard String Quartet (Wolf). MUSICMASTERS MM-20027, $7.98 [available from: Intersound, Inc., 14025-23rd Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55441].
BARBER: Op. 45: No. 1 Now Have I Fed and Eaten Up the Rose; No. 2, A Green Lowland of Pianos; No. 3, O Boundless, Boundless Evening. I Hear an Army, Op. 10, no. 3. Nocturne Op, 13, no. 4. WOLF: Schlafendes Jesuskind; Jagerlied; Begegnung; Verborgenheit; Auf ein altes Bild; Denk’es, O Seele!; Auf einer Wanderung; Nimmersatte Liebe.
Between the ages of 40 and 75, American composers have an especially difficult time. When they are younger, their accomplishments may herald attention, marking them as “new names on the scene”; as they reach the milestones of seniority, their status as “elder statesmen” prompts a more sympathetic perspective on their work. But during the middle-age period, the fortunate few who run the show are dedicated to keeping the power in their hands, and look with little tolerance upon nonconformists and their alternative viewpoints. This is a period of life that demoralizes and often destroys those composers who have sought over the years to maintain their individuality: Now they may discover that the failure to conform has brought them few rewards-tangible or spiritual; what recognition they have already won may seem to dwindle. Those who do not live to reach “elder statesman” status never witness the “critical reassessment” often prompted by their demise.
Not only is this state of affairs painfully inhumane, but it also prevents the rest of us from gaining the full benefit of having great creative artists living among us. The legacy of a Samuel Barber, who enjoyed such prominence during his youth that many of his works were familiar to those in the profession, could be “rediscovered” with relative ease; but other, equally gifted composers, never having made that initial impact, find their reputations buried with them, without ever having had the chance to connect with an audience that might have been receptive. The conventional assumption that the cream eventually rises to the top is simply wishful thinking (and a rationalization for those who refuse to make the necessary discriminations themselves).
It is sadly ironic that for the last 15 or 20 years of his life, even Samuel Barber and his music were treated with smirking condescension by the musical establishment, which regarded his continuing creativity with casual indifference, while begrudging those few works too firmly entrenched in the repertoire to be dislodged. Yet today, only 3 1/2 years since his death, Barber is one of the only American composers (if not the only one) represented internationally by a large, truly representative proportion of his oeuvre. Not that some pieces — the Adagio,Knoxville, the violin concerto-weren’t performed regularly during his lifetime; but the frequency of performances, the quantity of recordings, and the number of different works involved have increased significantly.
The three new releases discussed here reflect the current enthusiasm for Barber’s music. Particularly welcome is the reissue, on RCA’s modestly priced “Gold Seal” series, of Leontyne Price’s 1969 recording (LSC-3062) of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and two scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, the magnificent opera that Barber composed in 1966, especially with her voice in mind. It is unfortunate that in the case of such a significant reissue, RCA couldn’t manage to provide some useful program notes and quiet surfaces. But with a soprano like Leontyne Price, and a conductor like Thomas Schippers, whose many performances of Barber’s music consistently revealed the deepest sympathy and comprehension, and with the New Philharmonia Orchestra responding with great conviction, this disc continues to be an indispensable entry in the Barber discography. In the poignantKnoxville: Summer of 1915, Price rather unexpectedly summons an intimate sense of childhood nostalgia, ideally appropriate to the work. In the two powerful scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, she brings to bear a more familiar sense of imperial grandeur and majesty. Despite the public reports of disaster that attended the 1966 Metropolitan Opera premiere of this work, Antony and Cleopatra had many partisans within the music world right from the start. Indeed, the work exerted an undeniable influence on subsequent operas by a number of American composers who never doubted its merit. When a revised version of the opera was mounted by Gian-Carlo Menotti in 1975, the response was overwhelmingly favorable (though not so widely publicized). A more recent production, also directed by Menotti, was recorded by New World. This release, expected imminently, should provide a broader opportunity for acquaintance with this important work.
Andante, a division of Varèse Sarabande, has undertaken a promising series featuring the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Keith Clark, in recordings of American symphonic music. One can only hope that such a series will fill some of the gaping holes in the recorded documentation of this repertoire. Their new release offers four works that date from the years 1937-44, a period when American composers were drawn toward a kind of musical populism, which paralleled certain political trends of the moment. Barber never really participated in this direction: His natural style, though aristocratic in tone, did not require conscious simplification in order to be comprehensible. Thus his music was already enjoying great popularity at that time. Neither the Essay No. 1 nor the Capricorn Concerto is a newcomer to records — in fact, both are currently available elsewhere. The Essay No. 1 is a short work, characterized by the vein of warm, melancholy lyricism that permeated most of the music that launched Barber’s reputation during the 1930s. Indeed, many of his enduring successes date from that period, when he found especially suitable formal vehicles for his particular gifts, projecting sincere, yet dignified, emotion without inhibition. The perennial Adagio for Strings is only the best-known of several such pieces, of which the Essay No. 1 is also a fine example.
On the other hand, the Capricorn Concerto, written six years later, is a blatant indication of an apparent crisis of conviction that Barber suffered during the mid-1940s. Now the early style of the Essay No. 1 — undeniably old-fashioned, but unmistakably Barber’s own, nonetheless — was abandoned in favor of a shamelessly derivative yet very fashionable idiom inherited directly from Stravinsky. The concerto shows taste and skill at all times, but fails to distinguish itself from any number of similar pieces that appeared during the 1940s, only to be forgotten. The Capricorn Concerto would probably be among them were it not for Barber’s overall reputation.
Aaron Copland’s Prairie Journal was originally titled Music for Radio, as it was commissioned for national broadcast by CBS in 1937; it was also temporarily known as Saga of the Prairies. It has been recorded only once before: during the 1950s, part of the unique and invaluable MGM series masterminded by Edward Cole. One of Copland’s early ventures into the “Americana” vein that was to prove so successful, Prairie Journal is precisely what one might expect of an orchestral work with this title, by this composer, 12 minutes long, and episodic in form. An Outdoor Overture, composed one year later, is a better-known work, displaying Copland’s enormous flair for unabashedly distilling mainstream Stravinsky down to its simplest elements, applying them to thematic material of a distinctly American cast, producing a result so stylish and idiomatic that its synthetic basis is barely even noticed, let alone detrimental. The presence of this piece alongside Barber’s Capricorn Concerto suggests the degree of influence exerted by Stravinsky on the musical language of so many (but not all) of even the most distinctive American composers during the 1930s and ’40s. Nevertheless, the exuberance and effortless craftsmanship of An Outdoor Overture give it an irresistible appeal.
Located in Orange County, California, the Pacific Symphony was founded several years ago by its conductor Keith Clark, who has been fairly active in Europe, as a composer as well as conductor. They make quite a favorable impression on this disc-much better than one might expect of a regional orchestra. Barber’s Essay No. 1 is given a taut, powerful performance, far superior to the inept British reading conducted by David Measham on Unicorn UN1-72010, the only other current recording of the work. The Capricorn Concerto is also well played, aided by the contributions of three superb West Coast soloists. In this piece the competition is a bit stiffer, with Howard Hanson’s Eastman performance from around 1960 still in the catalog (Mercury SRI-75049). That performance, which does have its ragged moments, displays a bit more crispness and vitality, and the recording is excellent despite its age. The Copland pieces are also played with convincing finesse on the new Andante disc, although there is a stolidness of articulation and a massiveness to the sonic impact that I find somewhat inappropriate for the Copland style. The recording offers rich, luxuriant sound, but with a suggestion of some artificial boosting of the mid-range, producing a rather bloated effect.
As a melodist, Barber was second to none, and his exquisite taste in capturing the mood and meaning of a poem was unexcelled. One might thus expect vocal music to account for a significant portion of Barber’s output, and this includes several groups of songs. Three Songs, Op. 45, was the composer’s final effort in the genre. Written during the early 1970s for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who introduced them with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, they have since been performed. widely. In fact, another recording of these songs has already been issued, featuring mezzo-soprano Glenda Maurice (Etcetera ETC-1002). Yet the Three Songs, based on English translations of European poems are not of the same high caliber as Barber’s best songs, the Op. 10 group and the Op. 13 group. Fischer-Dieskau includes one from each of these groups, and the difference is strikingly evident. Like theBallade, Op. 46 and the Essay No. 3, Op. 47, the Op. 45 songs strive vainly to re-ignite the spark that kindled past glories; but the creative energy had dissipated, leaving only empty gestures. These renditions of the Barber songs are also disappointing, for several reasons: The indications of a live-performance recording are all too obvious, as hall and audience sounds are unusually obtrusive, and Fischer-Dieskau is unusually remote-not only acoustically, but artistically as well. He passes over the songs with a casualness that borders on the perfunctory. I daresay that listeners looking for sensitive, expressive renderings of Barber’s songs will find this disc quite unsatisfactory. I would recommend to such listeners the Glenda Maurice recording mentioned above, which contains nine Barber entries, sung beautifully, along with a group of Britten songs. Less brilliant vocally, but rewarding nonetheless, is a Cambridge disc (CRS-2715) featuring baritone Dale Moore in a collection of American songs, including eight of Barber.
The Musicmasters release also contains a selection of eight songs from Wolf’s Mörike Lieder. In these songs, transcribed for string quartet by Claus Adam, Fischer-Dieskau seems more at home, artistically. The quality of the recordings is closer to professional standards as well. Incidentally, Wolf himself had orchestrated several of the songs chosen by Adam, suggesting their appropriateness for transcription. Those listeners more interested in this portion of the disc may find it less disappointing.