BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2; Night Flight. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Music for a Scene from Shelley. Sonata for Cello and Piano. DIAMOND: Sonata for Cello and Piano.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2; Night Flight. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham. UNICORN UN1-72010, $4.98.

BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Music for a Scene from ShelleyRonald Thomas, violin; Molly McGurk, soprano; West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham. UNICORN UN1-72016, $4.98.

BARBER: Sonata for Cello and Piano. DIAMOND: Sonata for Cello and Piano. Harry Clark, cello; Sandra Schuldmann, piano. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS 3378, produced by Daniel Nimetz, $3.95.

The eight works by Samuel Barber offered on this array of recordings amount to nearly 20 percent of his entire output, and include several of his most beautiful, representative, and significant compositions. Each piece, except perhaps for Night Flight (a revised version of the slow movement of the “withdrawn” Symphony No. 2), is a masterpiece in its own way, and is essential for any record collection. The Unicorn discs provide a great temptation, as they offer, at a reasonable price, fresh recordings of a particularly desirable selection of pieces. But all this music has already been recorded in performances that are, for the most part, better than adequate, and many of the alternative versions are still available. Thus this review must answer two questions: 1) Do these recordings provide a good introduction for those listeners who have yet to discover this music? 2) Are these recordings fine enough to warrant inclusion in a collection that already contains earlier versions?

The answers to these questions are, generally speaking: 1) Yes, but only for those listeners whose reaction to unfamiliar music is not significantly influenced by the quality of performance; 2) No.

Most of Barber’s music, especially the pieces represented on these recordings, is impulsive and rhapsodic in nature. its strongest features are its gorgeous melodic content and its convincing emotional and dramatic power. Despite frequent comments praising its “superb craftsmanship,” Barber’s sense of form and development are weak, just barely adequate to convey the essence of his distinguished thematic ideas and his effects of mood and emotion. This shortcoming is not devastating to his stature as a composer; a melodic gift as distinctive as Barber’s is a far rarer commodity than the ability to build a tight musical structure, contrary perhaps to common belief. Many of the “old masters,” e.g., Tchaikovsky, suffered from the same imbalance in compositional resources. Their kind of music can be exceedingly effective and affecting, but it must be performed in a way that capitalizes on its strengths and camouflages its weaknesses — that is, by supporting the impulsiveness, following the sense of drama, and allowing the melodies to blossom according to their own inclinations; by avoiding excessive deliberation and a needless focus on details, and by never flattening out or holding back on climaxes. This seemingly obvious solution seems to have eluded each performing ensemble presented here, as each systematically follows the wrong course with a consistency that one might consider a premeditated interpretive strategy were it not so totally and blunder’ngly insensitive and lacking in any useful insight.

The works that fare best are those that feature soloists: the Violin Concerto and Knoxville, suggesting that conductor David Measham might bear most of the responsibility for the graceless, labored quality of these readings. Not that violinist Ronald Thomas or soprano Molly McGurk offer any real competition to Isaac Stern or Leontyne Price, but each has produced a passable rendering of his contribution. Thomas’ tone is weak and very limited in expressive range, and his whole approach is limp and dull, but he does manage technically to hold things together — admittedly pretty faint praise, and not much of a recommendation in a work whose sole attraction is its wealth of irresistible and unforgettable melodies. But those uninterested in the Hindemith Concerto paired with Stem’s version (Columbia MS-6713) will note that Unicorn offers Knoxville on the other side.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a quite uncharacteristic excursion (for Barber) into the realm of American-flavored nostalgia (at its most sensitive and poignant, to be sure), and ironically its great popularity has led many into the erroneous impression that the work represents Barber at his most quintessential. Moreover, this single piece has become an exceedingly influential work as well, a veritable prototype for an entire school of progeny (Corigliano, LaMontaine, and Floyd, among others) drawn to this slightly reserved, self-effacing yet exquisitely lyrical approach to poetic settings, and to instrumental music, too. What makes this ironic is that theKnoxville style is not really pure Barber, as many elements were distilled from Copland and Stravinsky for this particular work. Anyway, McGurk’s version is not too bad. Her voice is attractively light, but with a strange edge. Her intonation is fine, but she seems quite uninvolved with the meaning of the work and does not project the text at all. Of course, she is far outclassed by Leontyne Price (RCA LSC-3062), whose Knoxville is paired with the two breathtaking excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra, which are also indispensable items, exemplifying post-1965 Barber at its best.

The Symphony No. 1, Essays 1 and 2, and Music for a Scene from Shelley are among Barber’s most perfect works, totally sincere in their rich, Gothic melodrama, and fully consummated in their formal designs. In addition, they are integrated dramatic entities, rather than melodies strung together. Measham’s ability to bring these pieces to life, and to project their great intensity, is feeble beyond belief. The orchestra sloshes around aimlessly, groping blindly among murky textures. Tempos are ponderous, melodies are completely undifferentiated, and climaxes come and go unnoticed. Each of these pieces, except for the beautifully elegiac Essay No. 1, is available in another, far superior recording. The powerful and majestic Essay No. 2 is best performed on the great all-Barber record conducted by the late Thomas Schippers (Odyssey Y-33230), who was probably Barber’s foremost interpreter. It is also available in a more constricted interpretation by the late Vladimir Golschmann on Vanguard 2083, a record that also contains the ominous and terrifying Music for a Scene from Shelley in a performance that, while not ideal, is much better than Measham’s desecration. And although Howard Hanson’s performance of the Symphony No. 1 (reissued on Mercury 75012) suffers from mediocre orchestral playing and shallow monaural acoustics, it is still one of the most sympathetic and convincing interpretations of the work ever committed to disc.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that the Unicorn discs are sonically excellent, and the surfaces immaculate. Somebody’s priorities are pretty strange!

Barber’s Cello Sonata was composed in 1932, making it the earliest work discussed here. It is a lovely piece, alternately gentle and passionate, and quite extended in scope, wearing its tender romanticism proudly. But cellist Clark is as in the dark interpretively as Measham, and similarly so. His tempos are so slow that the work’s fragile beauty becomes sluggish and simplistic. The opening Allegro is played at a slow Andante, so that the following Adagio is ridiculous. A rendition like this can only do the music a disservice. One wonders how such a performance could have possibly been accepted by a serious record company, especially when the cello playing is as technically weak as this, in addition.

Perhaps the duo became so involved with the considerable textural and technical challenges of the Diamond Sonata that they simply neglected the Barber. For while still somewhat tentative and precarious, the due seems to have the Diamond work under much better control. Dating from 1938, this is one of the composer’s most impressive efforts — an extremely earnest, contrapuntally involved, and densely packed work, saved from stolidity by a lively and engaging rhythmic vitality. Without the instantly ingratiating charm of the Barber, it appears a bit drab by comparison, but it is a substantial and quite accessible work, if somewhat more rarefied in its attractions.

A serious shortcoming of this release is the quality of the surfaces, which are pocked and gouged beyond the realm of acceptability. Perhaps my copy was not representative of the entire pressing, but I suggest caution. Aside from this, the sound quality is quite good.