BARBER: Overture to “The School for Scandal”; Adagio for Strings; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2; Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Medea’s Dance of Vengeance; Symphony No. 1; Night Flight

BARBER: Overture to “The School for Scandal”; Adagio for Strings; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2; Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Medea’s Dance of Vengeance. Sylvia McNair, soprano; Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. TELARC CD-80250 [DDD]; 65:29. Produced by Robert Woods.

BARBER: Symphony No. 1; Essays for Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2; Night Flight.David Measham conducting the London Symphony Orchestra UNICORN-KANCHANA UKCD2046 [ADD); 51:02. Produced by Robert Angles.

I had initially approached the Levi/Atlanta disc with some scorn, because its exclusive concentration on Barber’s early “hits” seemed so overly timid and “safe”. However, upon actually listening to the CD, I am forced to acknowledge that these performances — along with the recording itself — are superb. The interpretations are amazingly dynamic and reveal a thorough understanding of Barber’s music, while the orchestral execution is impeccably refined and smoothly polished. The disc’s main competitor is EMI CDC-7 49463 2, an all-Barber disc featuring Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony (see Fanfare 12:6, pp 54ff). The contents of the two discs are identical, except that Slatkin includes the Essay No. 3, while Levi offers Knoxville in its place. I would love to hear what Levi and the Atlanta Symphony would do with the Essay No. 3, as his readings are consistently more incisive, comprehensive, and exciting than Slatkin’s, while Telarc provides a fuller, more dynamic, and more transparent sonic context than EMI — and Slatkin’s recording had set quite a high standard, with regard to both performance and sound quality. The Levi/Atlanta disc thus becomes the finest single-disc introduction to Barber’s best-known music currently available.

Essays Nos. 1 and 2 are gorgeous (though I think it was a mistake not to include No. 3). The Overture to the “School for Scandal” displays an ideal balance between the scintillating playfulness and the lovely lyricism of its thematic material Soprano Sylvia McNair lends a lovely boyish charm to Knoxville, comparing favorably with such extraordinary performances as those by Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, and Dawn Upshaw. Medea’s Dance of Vengeance — an audience favorite, despite the fact that it is one of Barber’s most dissonant works — is given an expansive yet thrilling reading (although I find the dance proper, a sort of demonic boogie-woogie that is rather short in proportion to the rest of the piece, to be a little too dainty for a “dance of vengeance”. This is Barber’s shortcoming — not Levi’s — in attempting the sort of music of which his near-contemporary Paul Creston was a master.) Even the overplayed Adagio is so beautifully shaped and phrased as to sound fresh and moving.

The Measham/LSO release, a reissue of a recording that originally appeared in 1976, is a revealing example of how far Barber performances have advanced over the course of 15 years. These shapeless readings sound both under-conceptualized and under-rehearsed, with no sense of interpretive rationale or dramatic focus. The attractive program and decent (for its time) sound quality might have made this a possibility for purchase when it appeared initially, but today it is outclassed beyond consideration. The infrequently encountered Night Flight, extracted from the once-suppressed Symphony No. 2, is more effective in its original context — still available, I believe, on Stradivari SCD-8012 (see the extended article/review cited in the first paragraph above).