BARBER: Violin Concerto. Music for a Scene from Shelley. Souvenirs. Serenade.

BARBER: Violin Concerto. Music for a Scene from Shelley. SouvenirsSerenade · Marin Alsop, cond; Royal Scottish National SO; James Buswell (vn)· NAXOS 8.559044 (66:30)

This is Volume 3 of Naxos’s highly praised Barber cycle. Perhaps this installment has less to offer the listener who already owns some fine Barber recordings in his library; but the novice collector who is just discovering this repertoire through Naxos’s “American Classics” series will find the latest release just as rewarding as its predecessors. The most significant entry from a discographical standpoint is an outstanding performance of the orchestral version of the ballet suite Souvenirs(originally scored for piano, four hands). This coyly epicene exercise in nostalgic kitsch represents an aspect of the composer’s personality rarely reflected in his works. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to detest this music, and pretended it didn’t exist. But, forced to acknowledge it and familiarize myself with it for the purpose of reviews, I have developed a grudging fondness for it. Its utter grace, charm, and panache are undeniable throughout, but the movement entitled “Hesitation Tango” is more than that: Underlying its indulgent languor is a sense of sinister danger in which Barber’s dramatic power emerges with eloquent expression. Highlighting this aspect magnificently, Marin Alsop projects the suite with unapologetically voluptuous luxuriance, in what is probably the finest, most sympathetic performance of the orchestral version ever committed to disc.
The rest of the performances on this new release are excellent, but these pieces do not suffer from inadequate representation on recording. James Buswell offers a gorgeous performance of Barber’s justly beloved Violin Concerto, but many equally fine performances are already widely available (my personal favorites are those by Gil Shaham and Elmar Oliveira). 

Music for a Scene from Shelley is a little less popular than Barber’s other early orchestral works, probably owing to its consistently gloomy mood and its less sweetly melodious thematic content. While some commentators have pointed to the influence of Debussy’s Nuages and Holst’s Neptune on this work, this is true only in a superficial sense, as its expressive content and musical realization are quite distinctive and not at all derivative. The performance here is solid and appropriately mysterious, and the work’s terrifying climax is suitably blood-curdling, but no more so than David Zinman’s excellent reading with the Baltimore Symphony on Argo.

The Serenade for string quartet is Barber’s Opus 1, composed when he was 18. It is heard here in the familiar arrangement for string orchestra, which adds body to what is otherwise a brief and rather anemic nocturnal diversion. Its genteel character is disturbed only by an occasional hint of the turgid morbidity of Verklärte Nacht. This performance is very nicely balanced and clearly articulated, although an overly slow tempo in the third movement exaggerates the music’s fastidiousness.