BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Concerto for Piano & Orch.; Souvenirs; Canzonetta for Oboe & Strings. BRITTEN: Les Illuminations; Young Apollo. STRAUSS: Conc. for Oboe & Small Orch. WOLF-FERRARI: Idillio-Concertino. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Oboe & Strings.

by Walter Simmons



BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Souvenirs. John Browning, Leonard Slatkin, pianists; Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. RCA VICTOR 60732-2-RC (DDD); 69:36. Produced by Jay David Saks.

BARBER: Souvenirs; Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings. BRITTEN: Les Illuminations; Young Apollo. Julia Girdwood, oboe; Carole Parley, soprano; Peter Evans, piano; Jose Serebrier conducting the London Symphony Orchestral and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. PHOENIX PHCD-111(ADD, DDD); 55:29. Produced by Jeffrey Kaufman.

BARBER: Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings. STRAUSS: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra. WOLF-FERRARI: Idillio-Concertino. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Oboe and Strings. Humbert Lucarelli, oboe; Donald Spieth conducting the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7023-2 Hl (DDD); 73:50.   Produced by Michael Fine and Karen Chester 

As the Samuel Barber discography continues its rapid growth, and his works become increasingly familiar to soloists, conductors, and ensembles, the general quality of performances rises accordingly. These three laudable new releases (along with some others reviewed in this issue) document that assertion. Barber’s Symphony No.1 — along with Hanson’s Third, the most fully consummated American symphony of the 1930s — appears virtually simultaneously on two major releases: one featuring Slatkin with the Saint Louis Symphony, reviewed here, and the other featuring Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony (Chandos CHAN-8958), reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Barber’s symphony, as most readers probably know, is a compact, one-movement integration of a classical four-movement design. Its richly romantic attitude is effectively regulated by its economical structure. The symphony, written when the composer was 26, is essentially monothematic, the grandly heroic opening theme achieving its apotheosis as the subject of a concluding passacaglia. The work was performed by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic and recorded by them soon thereafter, giving it rather broad exposure early on 

Although the First Symphony has never suffered from a paucity of recordings, only recently have performances begun to reflect an overall understanding of the deeper and subtler aspects of Barber’s compositional rhetoric. From this perspective, both Slatkin’s and Jarvi’s renditions are noteworthy. Leonard Slatkin has already demonstrated considerable affinity for and sensitivity to Barber’s music in a number of previous recordings. With Elmar Oliveira he recorded the Violin Concerto, probably the most perceptive interpretation of this work thus far committed to disc, while his recording of orchestral music (EMI/Angel CDC7-49463-2; see Fanfare 12:6) may be the best single all-Barber CD available. Slatkin’s reading of the Symphony No. 1. maintains this standard: a successful effort to articulate this fundamentally lyrico-dramatic work from the perspective of a thorough understanding of the composer’s expressive syntax. To the contrary, Järvi’s rendition reveals a fresh approach, as if a fine, experienced musician, taken with the score, has proceeded to delve into it and develop an interpretation without concerning himself with prior performance history. The result is unusual at times, but ultimately fairly convincing. Jarvi takes the opening section very broadly and almost gently, smoothing out much of its power and defiance. While this strikes me as almost alarmingly out of character, the following sections proceed with an impressive tightening of focus, building in vigor and intensity to a most definitive conclusion. On the whole, Järvi presents a satisfying view of the work as a major symphonic statement.

Both the Saint Louis Symphony and the Detroit Symphony play with outstanding refinement and precision. Both recordings offer splendid sound quality. In summary, therefore, I would recommend Slatkin’s interpretation to those just discovering this richly appealing work, and Järvi’s to those already familiar enough with it to enjoy an “alternative” approach.

Donal Henahan, chief music critic of the New York Times, regularly exposes his shameless ignorance in petulant editorials that appear in the Sunday edition. One recent column complained about the paucity of works in the standard repertoire composed since 1950. As I promptly informed him in a letter, not only does his complaint reveal misconceptions regarding the way music becomes accepted into the repertoire, but it is based on a fundamentally erroneous assumption. Among the two dozen or so works that I cited to disprove his initial contention was the 1962 Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber, now offered in what I believe is its fifth recording. The concerto was written for, premiered by, and soon thereafter recorded by John Browning. That recording (Columbia MS-6638) boasted the meticulous support of the Cleveland Orchestra, under the direction of George Szell. In the face of all subsequent recordings of this often moving, often stirring, but basically conventional-minded piece, none could match the blinding virtuosity, crisp precision, and impeccable orchestral refinement of the original Browning/Szell recording, whose only shortcoming was a shallow tinniness of sound quality typical of its vintage. Now we are presented with a new Browning performance, nearly 30 years later. How does this one compare with its predecessor (which has not, I believe, been reissued on CD)?

Not surprisingly, the new RCA Victor release provides a plush, deep sonic ambience that is clearly superior to the old Columbia sound. On the whole, this is a mellower, somewhat subtler performance, especially affecting in the lovingly phrased Canzone, which is probably the high point of the work for most listeners. However, there was an electricity and tensile strength to the earlier performance whose absence here weakens the first movement (which happens to be my favorite) and virtually destroys the third, which is little more than a Prokofievian toccata-rondo whose excitement and power depend on a manic, breakneck approach. 

Barber’s 1952 ballet suite Souvenirs, an evocation of the idle rich contentedly at play at a European hotel during the early 1900s, has always been my least favorite of the composer’s works. Hence, I never paid much attention to it, preferring to pretend it didn’t exist. However, in preparation for this review I decided to familiarize myself more deeply with it. Although usually described as a satire of Pre-World War I complacency, it is far more affectionate, nostalgic, and “campy” than satirical — after all, this was the milieu into which Barber was born and one that nurtured him quite nicely. Indeed, it is the tone of complacent self-satisfaction that I find repugnant. However, once one accepts this and goes on to the music itself, which embraces elements of both Ravel and Stravinsky, cannily integrated within the salon-like atmosphere, one cannot deny its flawless craftsmanship, its unerring sense of the style and ambience it attempts to evoke, and the presence of some irresistibly catchy tunes. I was forced to conclude my immersion in this music with a begrudging fondness for it.

The RCA release presents Souvenirs in its original piano four-hands version, played by Browning and Slatkin. This is a meticulous reading that astutely captures the elegance, grace, and charm of the music. Phoenix has reissued a performance of the orchestral version of Souvenirs that originally appeared about twenty years ago on a Desto LP, featuring Jose Serebrier conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This is a well-executed but two-dimensional performance, missing much of the music’s flair and wit. Barber-specialist Andrew Schenck conducts another recent performance of the orchestral version (coupled with ballet music by Menotti), with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Koch International CD-7005). This reading is a bit more probing, but less well played.  

The Canzonetta for oboe and strings is the last music Barber wrote. Left in short score in 1978, it was intended as the slow movement of a concerto he did not live to complete The virtually simultaneous Koch and Phoenix releases hold its very first recordings. As a “last song,” it is touchingly appropriate. The oboe was one of Barber’s favorite instruments and he scored many of his most beautiful melodies for it. Once it circulates a bit, the 7 1/2-minute piece is sure to win legions of admirers, its poignant suspensions and mournfulappogglaturas conjuring the same sort of elegiac dignity that permeates the Adagio for Strings. Yet in addition, there are touches of irony and bitterness absent from that early work-. Mahlerian touches that point to very real aspects of Barber’s mature character and make the piece all the more convincing as his valediction to life.

I have no doubt that everyone who has read this far into this review will want to own at least one recording of the Canzonetta. Both Humbert Lucarelli and Julia Girdwood are fine oboists and play the work beautifully. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is somewhat more solid than the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, and the Phoenix recording sounds a little better. Purchasing decisions will probably be determined by the remainder of the programs.

Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber share enough musical biographical features in common to provide some interesting points for comparison. While this is not the best opportunity for an extended discussion, several points might be noted. Both men were born at approximately the same time into culturally sophisticated social milieus in which their creative work was encouraged; both reflected a sensitivity to literary influences; both achieved considerable success while still quite young (their mid 20s)   Although both established their early musical identities apart from any of the current avant-garde compositional movements, Britten was certainly the more ambitious artist, seeking throughout his life to expand both his stylistic language and his aesthetic scope. Barber, by contrast, was more modest in his aims. Determining early on the type of musical expression that best suited his particular talent and temperament, he hewed to this throughout his life, in spite of considerable criticism during his later year. On the few occasions that he ventured into unfamiliar realms, he did so with serious misgivings. However, as a result, most of Barber’s music succeeds in achieving its intended aesthetic aims, whereas Britten — especially in his later years — often produced works of high aspiration that proved to be sterile and ungratifying.  In fact, it might be argued that Britten composed his best work during the years — the late 1930s through the early 1940s — when his aesthetic aims most closely paralleled those of Barber.

An excellent example is Les Illuminations, Britten’s 1939 setting of a text by Rimbaud and a work of enormous freshness, variety, and appeal. Even in such a relatively early composition, Britten’s authentic stylistic identity is clearly apparent. Its most salient feature is the transformation of a cool, Stravinskian pandiatonicism into an aerated lyricism free of tonal gravity, achieved with little harmonic dissonance. At the same time, the French language underlines the Gallic spirit that pervades the music itself. Soprano Carole Farley provides a vibrant, unusually dramatic, but richly shaped reading, with solid support from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, in a performance that I believe has been newly recorded for this Phoenix release.

Also on this disc is Young Apollo, a short piece for piano with antiphonal strings, completed about the same time as Les Illuminations. This is an attempt to render an abstract mythological image in musical terms and, despite some effective scoring and impressive moments, is rather ungainly in its unfolding. Britten evidently withdrew the work after its premiere, I would have to support that decision.

Koch International’s program of oboe music is a most pleasing new release.   In addition to the Barber Canzonetta, there is Richard Strauss’ genial and touching concerto, composed in 1945, when he was 81 and had just completed the profoundly introspective Metamorphosen.

Then there is the Idillio-Concertino by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, of opera buffa fame. This full-length, four-movement work, composed in 1932, is an unexpectedly sweet delight.As a stylistic frame of reference, I would point to the simple, rustic, lyrically poignant tunefulness of Grieg.   But this is not to diminish the work in any way; in fact, its Adagio third movement is quite lovely,

The disc concludes with the Oboe Concerto of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Composed between the radiantly serene Fifth and the harshly pessimistic Sixth Symphonies, this appealing work varies between a lilting folk-like lyricism and a darker, Sibelian brooding quality, with bucolic melismas that call to mind The Lark Ascending.

Humbert Lucarelli is a fine musician, and one of America’s best-known oboists. His contribution to the disc is consistently outstanding. The Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra is based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and has received citations for its active involvement in contemporary works. A little weak at times, they provide adequate support. Individually, other recordings of the Strauss and Vaughan Williams concertos might be preferable. But, taken as a whole, this CD offers an attractive 74-minute program of warmly engaging music. An additional bonus is the generous and informative annotation by Benjamin Folkman and Charles Turner (the associate of Barber who completed the orchestration of the Canzonetta).