BARBER: Symphony No. 2, op. 19; Cello Concerto, op. 22; Medea: Ballet Suite, op. 23 . Cello Concerto, op. 22; Medea: Ballet Suite, op. 23; Adagio for Strings, op. 11.

BARBER Symphony No. 2, op. 19; Cello Concerto, op. 22; Medea: Ballet Suite, op. 23 · Samuel Barber, cond; New SO of London; Zara Nelsova (vc) ·PEARL GEM-0151, mono/analog (77:47)

BARBER Cello Concerto, op. 22; Medea: Ballet Suite, op. 23; Adagio for Strings, op. 11 · Marin Alsop, cond; Royal Scottish National O; Wendy Warner (vc) · NAXOS 8.559088 (65:58)

By the 1940s Samuel Barber was, along with Aaron Copland, widely recognized–in Europe as well as in the U.S.–as America’s foremost “classical” composer; many of his works were already well established in the repertoire, having been played repeatedly under the most prominent auspices. During this decade his compositional style underwent a significant expansion, as he began to emerge from the somewhat “hothouse” romanticism that brought him his earliest successes, to explore some of the stylistic trends that were enjoying currency: specifically, a more overtly “American” sound, an approach to harmony and sonority influenced by the neo-classicism developed by Stravinsky, and, overall, a somewhat rougher, more aggressive approach, relative to the highly refined and somewhat fragile emotional vulnerability reflected in his earlier works. This period saw the appearance of such works as Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and the Piano Sonata, along with the three highlighted here.

During this time Barber had done some occasional conducting, and began to consider the notion that his own participation in the performance of his music might draw to it greater attention and interest, although as a student at the Curtis Institute, he had been dismissed from Fritz Reiner’s conducting class with the verdict that he “would never make a conductor.” Then, in 1950, Barber was invited by London/Decca to come to England and conduct recordings of three of his major works with the New Symphony Orchestra of London. Though he saw this as a promising opportunity, he felt the need for some preparation. After receiving a few lessons from his friend William Strickland, he arranged for a more intensive regimen with conductor Nicolai Malko. Following Malko to Copenhagen, Barber hired the Danish Opera Orchestra for a series of practice sessions, building his technique as well as his confidence. He retained Malko as coach during the actual recording sessions, which took place in December of that year.

The London sessions seemed to go very well. Barber was impressed with the orchestra, and extremely pleased with cellist Zara Nelsova, who had given the English premiere of his Cello Concerto, and was enlisted for the recording. He praised her “imposing tone and better intonation than Raya [Garbusova],” for whom he had originally composed the work. After the sessions he wrote to his family, “I am absolutely delighted about the whole venture…. [The head music director] says I am the only composer he knows–and he knows them all–who can conduct his own works and wishes me to do further work for them.” Shortly afterward Barber went on to Germany, where he conducted several highly successful concerts of his own works. Returning to the United States in the spring of 1951, he conducted the Boston Symphony in his Second Symphony. Though well received, this performance brought his foray into conducting to an end.

Asked toward the end of his life by Allan Kozinn why he gave up conducting, Barber replied, “Because on-stage I had about as much projection as a baby skunk. Projection, nerves–and I got bored of rehearsing my own music…. Oh I suppose there’s something to be gained from hearing a composer conduct his own work. My tempos could be definitive. But generally, I don’t believe composers make very good conductors…. By the time I [conducted my Second Symphony in Boston] I knew exactly where the violas were going wrong, and where I’d have to make them do it over and over, very slowly. Now how can you remain interested in doing that, whether it’s your own music or not?”

Until the Antony and Cleopatra fiasco, the circumstances surrounding his Symphony No. 2 made it the most highly publicized work of Barber’s entire career. (By now the story is known widely enough that a brief summary should suffice; a fuller discussion appears in my essay-review, Samuel Barber: A Once-Suppressed Symphony [et al]; Fanfare 12:6; it may also be found on my website During World War II Barber was serving as a corporal in the Army Air Force. Quite reasonably he felt that the best he could contribute to the war effort would be music that might inspire and ennoble the American forces. For his major project he developed the notion of a symphony that “would best express the mood, the adventure, the vivid action of the individual Army flying man.” Barber managed to persuade the authorities of the value of this idea, and they even allowed him to work on the composition at home, with the requirement that he appear at West Point for bi-weekly presentations of the latest portions of his work-in-progress. At one point disappointment was expressed that his Flight Symphony (as it was dubbed by the military) failed to reflect the innovative technology utilized by the Air Force, so he agreed to include a sound produced by an electronic tone-generator in the work. All these circumstances were heavily publicized in the media, so that the premiere of the Second Symphony (Dedicated to the Army Air Forces)–as it was formally identified–scheduled for March, 1944, by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, to be broadcast nationwide, was anticipated with great excitement.

The work was received enthusiastically by both press and public, and enjoyed many subsequent performances during the months that followed. However, Barber continued to tinker with it–as he often did after the premiere of a new work–and in 1947 produced a new version, extensively revised, without electronic tone generator, and entitled simply Symphony No. 2. Barber indicated that he was thoroughly satisfied with the symphony as it now stood, and that is the version he recorded in London in 1950. However, during the years that followed, interest in the work seemed to wane, and in 1964 he decided to withdraw it. He told his publisher, “It is not a good work…. Let’s go back to the office and destroy it.” The symphony was thenceforth banned from performance or recording, although Barber did spare the second movement, which he designated an autonomous work entitled Night Flight, and used some of the first movement material in subsequent works. Not until 1989–eight years after the composer’s death–did the trustees of his estate allow the late conductor Andrew Schenck–a staunch advocate of Barber’s music–to preside over a new recording of the symphony. That recording–issued when the composer’s works were enjoying renewed interest and appreciation–met with great approval. Since that time several other recordings have appeared, and the symphony seems to be joining the ranks among his most significant compositions.

The Symphony No. 2 certainly represents a stylistic departure for Barber, joining a host of other American symphonic works of the 1940s that share so many features in common that they could be said to comprise a genre all their own. Characterized by vigorous, assertive gestures, propulsive rhythms, and simple, often modal melodies, they are grand, public statements that project a sense of determination generally optimistic in its tenor. Of the many composers who contributed to this genre, perhaps David Diamond and Leonard Bernstein (in his less populist guises) are those whose music Barber’s symphony most frequently calls to mind, although passing moments also suggest some of the Europeans whose music was heard frequently at the time: Hindemith, Prokofiev, Walton. What is perhaps most remarkable about this work, however, is how convincingly authentic an expression it is, in spite of its apparent genesis as an exercise in aesthetic contrivance. From the perspective of this listener, Barber’s Second ranks among the best works of its kind, with very little in it that fails to ring true, and much that is quite powerful–the entire first movement, for example, is utterly thrilling. I very much disagree with the composer’s assessment that it is “not a good work” and can only attribute his act of filicide to an inner sense of fraudulence or to some other intrapsychic issue. Indeed, several other works of his from this period are far less artistically successful–the Capricorn Concerto, for example, or even the Cello Concerto. 

In truth, Barber tended to “fuss over” many of his works after their initial presentations. Medea is another example, with a similarly convoluted history. Originally composed in 1946 at the request of Martha Graham, who was to fashion a choreographic work based on the Greek tragedy, this music is among the harshest and most angular that Barber was ever to compose, and is even more indebted to the dry, crisp, brittle gestures and sonorities of Stravinsky. Scored sparely for small chamber orchestra, the music is consistent in tone and language and highly evocative–some of the most effective produced by Barber during the 1940s. The following year he deleted a few short sections and expanded the scoring to full orchestra, presenting the result as a concert suite of nearly half an hour’s duration. It was this version that Barber recorded in London in 1950. However, in 1955 he compressed and condensed the music down to a single movement of some 12-13 minutes, further expanding the orchestration, and entitled it Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. In this form it has become one of Barber’s most popular concert pieces. However I have always felt that this condensation entailed the loss of some very attractive music.

Barber composed three solo concertos, of which the one featuring the cello is the second. Dating from 1945, it has always impressed me as one of the composer’s few works that seem to lack a deep inner conviction. Of course, as always, the melodic portions–the second movement in particular–are the most effective and quite lovely. But much of the concerto seems uninspired, developing rather routine material in an uninteresting way, and lacking either the intense lyrical conviction of the earlier Violin Concerto or the formal strength and stylistic balance of the later Piano Concerto.

So what do Barber’s own performances of these works reveal to us? If we take seriously the composer’s statement that “my tempos could be definitive,” then we ought to consider the fact that each of his performances is significantly faster than we are accustomed to hearing today. For example, Barber conducts the Second Symphony in 26:38, as compared with Schenck’s 30:23 and Marin Alsop’s 30:59; Barber’s Medea is 23:54, while Schenck’s is 27:35 and Alsop’s is 28:44. But, as a rule, composer’s tempos are fast–especially when the work is new or unfamiliar–because composers tend to feel that when the essential objective elements are in place, the work speaks for itself. Professional performers, on the other hand, often linger, shaping a work to highlight nuances and details whose meaning, or even presence, might easily be overlooked by the average listener. For this reason composers’ own renditions of their music should be taken with a grain of salt, unlessthe composer is experienced as a conductor of other people’s music or the work is already well established, so that the composer’s own rendition is a conscious correction of a standing misconception. Aside from matters of tempo, the New Symphony Orchestra of London is quite scrappy by today’s standards, Zara Nelsova’s artistry is matched or surpassed by many of today’s cellists, including Rostropovich-protegé Wendy Warner, and the quality of the 50-year-old recording is so opaque that the sensuous aspect of the sound is lost. With more sensitive, polished performances of this music available today, such as those featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the sympathetic direction of Marin Alsop, captured by Naxos with far greater depth, clarity, and richness, the Pearl reissue can be of value or interest only to specialists in composer-conducted recordings. Listeners should be aware that Volumes 1 and 2 of Naxos’s budget-priced Barber orchestral cycle offer superior renditions of these three works (and others as well).