BARBER: Andromache’s Farewell. Antony and Cleopatra (Two Scenes). Vanessa (Two Scenes). Knoxville–Summer of 1915. Three Songs

BARBER: Andromache’s Farewell. Antony and Cleopatra (Two Scenes). Vanessa (Two Scenes). Knoxville–Summer of 1915. Three Songs. Roberta Alexander, soprano; Edo DeWaart conducting Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. ETCETERA KTC-1145 [DDD]; 60:42 Produced by Jacob Bogaart

For the casual listener who is not familiar with most of the pieces offered here, this new release contains a gorgeous array of music, presented in rich, heartfelt performances. However, the serious Barber enthusiast will already have nearly all music in performances that are superior both vocally and orchestrally.

The real novelty here consists of three songs from the 1930s, usually done with piano only — “I Hear an Army,” “Nocturne,” and “Sure On This Shining Night” — presented in orchestrated versions done by the composer   The three are wonderful songs — the third is quintessential early-Barber elegiac lyricism — and take on new dimensions in these settings, which will also probably give them a wider appeal.

Unlike most Barber recordings, the selections here can toward his late music, which is not as well-known, though with time that is becoming less true. Andromache’s Farewell and Antony. and Cleopatra date from the 1960s and both deal with ancient, exotic subjects. Essentially the music is cut from the same stylistic cloth, featuring the powerfully dramatic opulently orchestrated language — sinuously chromatic, subtly inflected, and angular at times — found in many of Barber’s late works. This music demonstrates that the composer is creative power remained strong during those late years and reveals an aspect of his creative personality–a capacity for tragic grandeur–equal in importance to the hypersensitive melancholia of his earlier work. The two brief excerpts from Vanessa and the ever-popular Knoxville round off the program nicely.

Of course, Barber often had the benefit of the finest. performers around. Martina Arroyo championed Andromache’s Farewell, recording it with the New York Philharmonic under Thomas Schippers — probably the most effective and sympathetic Barber conductor to date — in a stunning performance currently available on Sony MPK-46727, a disc that also features Eleanor Steber’s classic rendition of Knoxville. And the role of Cleopatra was actually written for Leontyne Price, who recorded the two excerpts, again with Thomas Schippers conducting — a glorious performance that must be regarded as definitive — on an RCA disc that, inexplicably, has yet to be reissued on CD. A lovely, appropriately boyish reading of Knoxvillewas the pairing on that LP. I understand that Miss Price also recorded one of the twoVanessa excerpts on an even earlier LP, in a stupendous reading, but I have not heard this myself. On the complete Vanessa recording RCA 7899-2RG; see Fanfare 14 3, pp. 144-5), the two arias are sung magnificently by Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber respectively. And, along with those already mentioned, two excellent recordings of Knoxville — each with especially fine orchestral accompaniments, in addition to wonderful singing — have appeared recently — one, with Dawn Upshaw (Fanfare 14.:4, p. 445) and the other with Sylvia McNair (Fanfare 15:6, pp. 111-2) 

So there have been some formidable precedents set, in the face of which one must conclude that Roberta Alexander’s not really stand up, sensitive, intelligent, and musical as they are. Her chief shortcoming is a flutter in her vibrato that is awfully hard to ignore. In re-reading my review of her fine CD of Barber songs from about four years ago (Fanfare 12:4, pp. 84-86), I see that I noted this defect but made light of it. The problem has definitely become worse since then. Perhaps in an effort to conceal it, the sonic ambience has been made quite reverberant — especially in the orchestrated songs — often rendering the words indistinct. Furthermore, the orchestral contributions — quite important in most of the selections — are often disappointing, with the blurring of contrapuntal. detail and rhythmic relationships often encountered in earlier Barber recordings, before the music had become so familiar. The two most perspicacious Barber conductors — Schippers and Andrew Schenck — both died prematurely, robbing us of what might have been a real Barber performing tradition. I’m afraid that Edo DeWaart hasn’t fully digested this music yet (although to be fair I should note that the introduction to the first A and C scene is breathtaking).  

There, now this reads like a negative review. Yes, everything I said above is true. But the performances are good — probably good enough to satisfy most everyone who doesn’t already know the older recordings. I suspect. this disc will make a lot of listeners happy — I enjoyed listening to it repeatedly, despite my reservations. And this is one hour of non-stop great music — enormously satisfying and richly evocative o£ mood, emotion, time, and place.

ELGAR: The Apostles. The Light of Life (Meditation).

ELGAR: The ApostlesThe Light of Life (Meditation). Adrian Boult conducting; Sheila Armstrong, soprano (Blessed Virgin, Angel); Helen Watts, contralto (Mary Magdalene); Robert Tear, tenor (St. John); Benjamin Luxon, bass (St. Peter); Clifford Grant, bass (Judas); John Carol Case, bass (Jesus); Choir of Downe House School, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI CLASSICS–CMS 7 64206 2 [ADD]; two discs: 70:40, 57:13. Produced by Christopher Bishop.

Elgar’s religious oratorios seem to be a specialized taste. Reviewing the Chandos recording of The Apostles in Fanfare 14:4 (pp. 207-5), my erudite colleague David Johnson notes that British writers “have treated Elgar’s oratorios with such inflated praise that a smoke screen of reverence has been raised,” making it “impossible [for me] to admit to myself that many of [them] (including The Dream of Gerontius) are profoundly wearisome.” I cite these comments because I know that Johnson’s feelings are shared by others, although they baffle me. I can only attribute them to a distaste for the pious treatment of the subject matter, to a general antipathy with late-romantic rhetoric, or perhaps to other extramusical concerns. For example, Johnson tempers his harsh judgment with a comment that conveys some sociopolitical overtones: “After all this griping, I do admit that there is a good deal of beautiful music in The Apostles, even though it is sickly’d o’er with Victorian religiosity and inflated by British Empire grandiosity.” As for myself, I had not been aware of a “smoke screen of reverence” concerning these works at the time I first encountered them and embraced them with the same fervor that seems to have consumed the British writers to whom Johnson refers — and I am neither British, Christian, nor a patient listener with a tolerance for long-windedness. Yet when I first read the extravagantly laudatory commentaries of noted Elgar authority Michael Kennedy and others, I felt that they confirmed, articulated, and elaborated my own initial reactions.

Of course, many readers will already be familiar with Elgar’s oratorios and will have their own opinions. Others may wish to explore these works, which show the combined influences of both Parsifal and Brahms’ German Requiem, shaped according to the Wagnerian system ofleitmotifs, but tinged with Elgar’s own distinctive elegiac nobility. The Apostles was composed in 1902-3, a couple of years after Gerontius and a couple of years before The Kingdom, which had originally been intended as part of The Apostles. Elgar himself compiled the text, which deals with the establishment of a group of followers around Jesus. The composer’s stated aim was to emphasize the Apostles’ human qualities. Michael Kennedy considers the work a considerable advance in the composer’s development. Those familiar with Elgar’s orchestral works will find none of the swashbuckling urbanity that informs such secular music. This is music that consistently reaches for the sublime, unfolding with a leisurely solemnity that, admittedly, could tax the patience of the unsympathetic listener. The choral writing is gorgeous, the orchestration richly woven, the vocal lines smooth and natural.  In his extensive, penetrating, and highly informative program notes, Kennedy describes The Apostles as “music which time and again overwhelms the listener with its transcendental qualities of compassion, insight, and radiance.” Yes, I imagine that this is just the sort of comment that disturbs David Johnson, but I find it right on target.

This CD reissue returns to the catalog a recording originally released on LP during the early 1970s. Its competition is the Chandos recording, released in 1990. That one featured a group of fine vocal soloists with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Richard Hickox. Both are excellent performances, but I would say that Hickox/Chandos has the advantage of a more vivid recording, which contributes to better clarity of diction and of choral counterpoint, of which there is a great deal. Also, despite some slower tempos, Hickox/Chandos impresses as a tighter, more solid performance overall. The vocal soloists are equivalently fine in both performances, making a preference difficult on that count. Especially impressive of the Chandos soloists is bass Robert Lloyd as Judas, but Clifford Grant on EMI has such soulful character that even here a choice is difficult. And then, Boult/EMI has two distinct advantages: one is the inclusion of a brief but lovely excerpt from Elgar’s 1896 oratorio, The Light of Life, which shares some thematic material with The Apostles. The other is the program booklet, with Michael Kennedy’s historical/critical/analytical essay of almost 20 pages. If you love this music, you will want this essay, and Keith Elcombe’s four pages for Chandos simply cannot compare.

GIANNINI: Symphony No. 3. NELHYBEL: Trittico. DELLO JOIO: Variants on a Medieval Tune. GRIEG: Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak. ALBENIZ-CAILLIET: Feast Day in Seville.

GIANNINI: Symphony No. 3. NELHYBEL: Trittico. DELLO JOIO: Variants on a Medieval Tune. GRIEG: Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak. ALBENIZ-CAILLIET: Feast Day in SevilleFrederick Fennell conducting the Dallas Wind Symphony. REFERENCE RR-52CD [DDD]; 62:25. Produced by J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr., Keith Johnson, and Marcia Martin. 

The Dallas Wind Symphony is a highly proficient ensemble — one of America’s few serious professional concert bands. Frederick Fennell is probably the foremost living conductor of wind music; the program here is varied and reasonably appealing, and the recorded sound is stupendous. For these reasons, this new release will be highly desirable and rewarding to band enthusiasts.

The Giannini symphony is a favorite of the American band repertoire. It was recorded in 1963 by the Eastman Wind Ensemble (which had been founded by Fennell), under the direction of A. Clyde Roller, Fennell’s successor. That excellent performance and recording has just recently been reissued on a disc also containing symphonies by Alan Hovhaness and Morton Gould see Fanfare 16:5, pp. 229-30)   The new Dallas performance is a slightly broader, smoother reading, phrased with a bit more subtlety and warmth, while the Eastman version is a tad (just a tad) crisper and more brisk. As I commented in the review just cited, the 1958 symphony is a genial, masterfully crafted work, conveying warmly felt emotions of an utterly conventional nature. The first movement is arresting, and the slow movement, as always with Giannini, is heartfelt and lovely. But the scherzo and finale are weak to the point of banality. I never fail to be amazed by the unimaginativeness of programming decisions. One might assume that the popularity of Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 would prompt curiosity about his other works for band. On several occasions I have mentioned the VariationsFugue, which is a tighter, more compelling piece than the symphony. A performance at the level of artistry found on this disc would be truly breathtaking. (Fanatical collectors of band music might be interested to know that Variations and Fugue appeared on the six-LP set, “The Revelli Years, Vol. I,” issued on Golden Crest CRS-4202. Good luck trying to find it!)   When performers and record companies finally delve into Giannini’s music and discover the best pieces, I predict that he will be viewed as one of the great American post-romantics — not as refined and sensitive as Barber perhaps, but a broader, deeper, and more fully realized talent than Howard Hanson for example.

Vaclav Nelhybel is a Czech composer who came to the United States in 1957, at the age of 38. Within half a dozen years he had made a tremendous impact on the American band world with a number of stunningly scored, flamboyantly exciting pieces embraced by high school and college groups all over the country Actually, Nelhybel’s compositional style shares much in common with that of other Czech composers of his generation — in particular, an elemental, almost brutal physicality produced by an emphasis on the first three notes of the minor scale. In Nelhybel’s hands, this style takes on a sort of Czech neo-Medieval quality. Trittico was composed in 1964 for the legendary William Revelli and his band at the University of Michigan and is an especially striking example of Nelhybel’s approach to the medium. It is worth adding, incidentally, that Nelhybel is an extremely prolific composer, with hundreds of compositions in other genres, which are hardly known at all.

Of the other pieces on the disc, Albeniz’s Feast Day in Seville is quite a treat. Lucien Cailliet’s arrangement is enormously effective and the music itself has more substance than just a picture-postcard. Grieg’s 1866 Funeral March is a haunting, affecting dirge written in memory of a close friend and collaborator who died suddenly. Dello Joio’s Variants on a Medieval Tune was composed in 1963. Based for unclear aesthetic reasons on the chant melody, “In Dulci Jubilo,” it is simply one more of his colorless, uninspired compositional exercises, devoid of medieval spirit or atmosphere.

As suggested at the beginning of this review, these are truly fantastic performances — all that an aficionado of the medium could possibly dream of. Of course, what I dream of is hearing more of the masterpieces of the American band repertoire played in performances of this caliber. In addition to the Giannini work mentioned earlier, I would draw attention to two other important compositions, as yet undiscovered: Nicolas Flagello’s Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds” (1970) and Arnold Rosner’s Trinity (1988). Listeners drawn to a release like this one and to the historic Eastman recordings would be thrilled to know these pieces, and I suspect that there are a good many such listeners among Fanfare’s readership.

COWELL: American Melting Pot. Persian Set. Old American Country Set. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2 Air. Ensemble: Adagio.

COWELL: American Melting Pot. Persian Set. Old American Country Set. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2 Air. Ensemble: Adagio. Richard Auldon Clark conducting the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra; Michael Sutton, violin. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7220-2 H1 [DDD]; 64:07. Produced by Michael Fine.

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) belongs — with Partch, Cage, and Harrison — to that group of Californian mavericks who played such a significant role in twentieth-century American music. Cowell’s own contribution was so far-reaching — he was a veritable one-man music industry — that it is difficult to summarize. Just to touch on a few high points: As an editor, publisher, critic, and general musical statesman, this exuberantly open-minded, elfin fellow was a positive constructive force, finding value in new music of all kinds, during a period in American music notable for hostile divisiveness and competitiveness; he was the teacher of both John Cage and Lou Harrison; he was close friend, colleague, advocate, and first biographer of Charles Ives; he was one of the first to promote the idea of “world music,” a fusion of sounds and techniques from musics of all cultures; he composed more than 900 works of his own that touched upon an enormous range of styles and functions (the list of works published in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music is staggering to behold).

Cowell’s fertile compositional career falls roughly into three phases, or “periods.” The first, lasting until the mid 1930s, was characterized by an emphasis on experimental techniques; the second, continuing until about 1950, concentrated on folk-related styles and materials, much, though not all, of Anglo-American origin; the third reveals a greater interest in Asian materials, while attempting some integration of vernacular and experimental interests. Contributing to a general sense of confusion about Cowell even among fairly sophisticated listeners (who but they even knows of him?) is the fact that his reputation is generally based on the works of the first period, while most of those pieces that are heard at all stem from the second period; the third-period music is hardly known at all. Furthermore, though Cowell’s benign, impish temperament may be detected in virtually all his music, not much else can: There is very little “content” to any of it. The music of the first period serves primarily as showcases for various innovative techniques: the pieces themselves are “examples” more than “works.” The music of the second period is exceedingly straightforward in its use of folk styles and materials: virtually nothing is “done” to it to give it a personal stamp. It is thus pleasant, but thoroughly unmemorable. It is in some of the music from the third period that Cowell seemed to attempt a distinctive aesthetic statement. Two works, available on recordings during the LP era, succeed in distilling something of the essence of this remarkable figure from his 900-some-odd compositions: the Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music” (1953), and the Variations for Orchestra (1956; rev. 1959).

This new release from Koch might have been a nice one-disc introduction to the music of Henry Cowell, but it is much too skewed toward the second period to give a representative impression of what the man was about. The only example from the first period is the “Adagio” from the 1924 Ensemble. A highly chromatic three-and-one-half-minute unison statement for strings, it is pregnant with possibilities for development; by itself it says nothing. Old American Country Set dates from the late 1930s and recalls the folk styles Cowell heard during childhood years spent in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Its five tuneful movements have a Grainger-like directness, with none of the cool sophistication found in, say, Copland’s treatment of Americana. The seven movements of American Melting Pot (1940) attempt to capture the spirit of some of the many ethnic groups comprising the American populace at the time. Again, however, these are strictly surface-level folk evocations. Cowell composed 18 Hymns and Fuguing Tunes based on the rough-hewn polyphony of colonial American choral music. These are warmly attractive pieces, explicitly imitative in character. No. 2 (1944) is typical of the genre. The pieces on the disc composed after 1950 share the characteristics of Cowell’s second period. The six-minute Air for violin and strings is modal, with more richly romantic interludes. Persian Set was once recorded by Stokowski on CRI. It was composed in 1957 during a visit to Iran and is a straightforward aural picture-postcard with no significant personal intervention.

All this music is thoroughly pleasant in a very superficial way. Performances are excellent. Program notes by Dana Paul Perna are generous and informative, but contain many typos. We need a more balanced representative sample of Cowell’s contribution as a composer.   

Kabelác: Symphony No. 5, op. 41 (“Dramatic”)’. Hamlet Improvisation, op. 46. Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 9. HANUS: Sonata-Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, op. 9.

KABELÁC: Symphony No. 5, op. 41 (“Dramatic”)’. Hamlet Improvisation, op. 46. Karel Anderl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; with Libuse Domaninska, soprano’. PRAGA PR 255 000 [ADD]; 56:00. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

KABELÁC: Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 9. HANUS: Sonata-Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, op. 9. Daniel Veis, cello; Helena Veisova, piano. PANTON 81 1014-2 [DDD]; 42:36. Produced by Vojtech Mojzis. (Distributed by Albany.)

As far as I know, these are the first CDs devoted to the music of the Czech composer Miloslav Kabelác (1908-79). The notes accompanying the Praga disc identify him as “the great Czech symphonist of the 20th century,” with eight works in that form. I am familiar with most of these, along with many other of his works, and have long found him to be one of the most individual and strangely compelling European composers of his generation. However, I know little about him of a historical or biographical nature, beyond the basic facts one finds in The New Grove; unfortunately, Pierre-E. Barbier’s strangely elliptical program notes for the Praga release leave many questions unanswered, while the notes for the Panton disc say virtually nothing. In 1976 I went to Prague to meet with Kabelác and found him evasive and uncommunicative to the point of paranoia. This was shortly before a brain tumor paralyzed him for three years, then killed him. Kabelác seems to have been regarded as Czechoslovakia’s leading composer during the 1960s, when many of his works appeared on Supraphon. His career culminated in a concert devoted to his music at the Strasbourg Festival in 1971, which was broadcast internationally. However, I suspect that a combination of the artistic directions in which he was moving and personal-political factors led to the suppression of his music and the obliteration of his reputation from official media of communication, so that by the mid 1970s his work seemed to have disappeared. (I would welcome hearing from any reader who can illuminate this matter.)

M. Barbier’s program notes seem at pains to place Kabelác  within the context of Mahler and Schoenberg, but such a characterization seems to me way off the mark. I hear him as much more clearly related to the grim stoicism of Shostakovich, with his somber, brooding harmonic stasis and defiant rhythmic obstinacy. However, in contrast to Shostakovich’s sprawling narrative approach, Kabelác  developed a fascination with tiny intervallic and rhythmic cells, which serve as his structural source material. Some of the resulting works appear free and improvisatory in form; others display a sort of compulsive formalism similar to Panufnik. But nearly all are characterized by a grim relentlessness prone to outbursts of violence suggestive of extreme emotional states. Perhaps his most distinctive and characteristic work is a twenty-five-minute orchestral passacaglia composed in 1957 and entitled The Mystery of Time (recorded by Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic soon after it was written). During the 1960s Kabelác’s music moved farther away from traditional syntax and became more idiosyncratic, with greater angularity and dissonance. But he never abandoned the strong feeling of tonal center or the sense of emotional desperation that characterized his work throughout his career. 

The Praga release is drawn from live performances dating from the 1960s. With the Symphony No. 5, “Dramatic,” composed in 1960, it plunges the listener new to Kabelác into very deep waters, as this is one taxing piece — an expansive forty-minute work in four movements, scored for soprano vocalise and large orchestra. As with most of Kabelác, the musical language itself is based on a chromatic modality that is somewhat exotic in effect, with conjunct lines and triadic harmony. Although its four movements attempt to offer some measure of contrast and variety, the overall effect is very somber and plaintive. Furthermore, the soprano, though not required to engage in any outrageous histrionics, is never used in a conventional cantabile fashion either. Rather, she serves as an omnipresent voice of woe, to the point where the listener may be tempted to cry, “Enough!” I feel ambivalent about saying this, because Kabelác is an extremely interesting and provocative composer, and I have been eagerly awaiting a revival of his work for some time. And as is the case with the more unusual figures, even flawed works have their value and shed light on the output as a whole. This is especially true for a composer as enigmatic as Kabelác. I am not even sure I would call this work “flawed,” but it is definitely extreme, and I cannot simply recommend it without some warning. On the other hand, an awful lot of people seem to enjoy the Gorecki Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which is a natural point for comparison. The Gorecki is probably somewhat easier to take, although it is more monotonous in rhythm and dynamics, because it has a warmth and tenderness missing from the Kabelác. Gorecki sheds tears, whereas Kabelácgrits his teeth. Also, Gorecki uses the soprano more sparingly, allowing long breaks between solos. Libuse Domaninska, one of the foremost Czech sopranos of the 1950s and 60s, deserves considerable credit for negotiating this relentlessly demanding part as successfully as she does.

The Hamlet Improvisation of 1963 is, at sixteen minutes, a much tighter, more effective work, although a less conventionally structured one. Despite its title, the work seems to be fully notated, the term “improvisation” said to refer to a “feeling of independence and freedom.” Here Kabelác’s language is more terse and gestural, rather than thematic. Outbursts of angry protest in cluster harmonies that suggest Messiaen alternate with passages of eerie mystery created by consonant harmony treated in the sort of unconventional atonal manner one finds in the music of Arnold Rosner. One suspects that this piece, which won high honors when first presented in 1964 at the Prague Spring Festival, is a camouflaged statement of sociopolitical protest, as were so many Eastern European works at the time. Although the performers are the same, the rendition presented here, adequate enough, is unfortunately not the one that was issued on Supraphon during the late 1960s; alas, that one was better played and better recorded.

Kabelác’s cello sonata was written during the early 1940s and is a more classically balanced work. The main motif of the first movement anticipates the corresponding motif in Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony; the finale, deleted by the composer initially, sounds as though it was composed even earlier, as it uses a somewhat different harmonic vocabulary and seems comparatively conventional. The rest, however, displays all the earmarks of theKabelác style: a grim intensity of mood and the use of exotic scales and insistent rhythms. The performance, of recent vintage, is extremely fine.

The cello sonata of Jan Hanuš (b. 1915) is a worthy discmate to the Kabelác. It is a solid, ambitious effort, serious in tone, with a dissonant language, but an expressive approach. However, it could benefit from a clearer sense of direction and a stronger dramatic focus. Again, it is very well played by cellist Daniel Veis and his wife, pianist Helena Veisova.   

SCRIABIN: Preludes (complete), Vol. 2. Etudes (complete)

SCRIABIN: Préludes (complete), Vol. 2. Paul Komen, piano. GLOBE–GLO 5098 [DDD]; 61:26. Produced by Klaas A. Posthuma.
Sept Préludes, Op. 17. Quatre Préludes, Op. 22. Deux Préludes, Op. 27. Quatre Préludes, Op. 31. Quatre Préludes, Op. 33 Trois Préludes, Op. 35. Quatre Préludes, Op. 37. Quatre Préludes, Op. 39. Prelude, Op. 45, No. 3. Quatre Préludes, Op. 48. Prelude, Op. 49, No. 2. Prelude, Op. 51, No. 2. Prelude, Op. 56, No. 1. Prelude, Op. 59, No. 2. Deux Préludes, Op. 67. Cinq Préludes, Op. 74.

SCRIABIN: Études (complete). Nikita Magaloff, piano. DISQUES MONTAIGNE–782015 [DDD]; 54:33. Produced by Xavier Rist.
Etude, Op. 2, No. 1. Douze Études, Op. 8. Huit Études, Op. 42. Trois Études, Op. 65.

Although Scriabin’s five symphonies and ten piano sonatas are generally viewed as the “backbone” of his output, the short character piece must be regarded as his most characteristic form of expression, and he produced them copiously throughout his relatively brief yet continually evolving compositional career. He wrote some two hundred of them in all, each generally a minute or two in duration, with vague genre titles like préludepièce, poèmeetc., although those entitled étude tend to address specific pianistic technical challenges. For the most part they are autonomous entities, grouped together for convenience of identification and publication. Some of the earlier groupings, such as the Op. 11 Préludes, are compilations of music composed at different times. Hence, pianists are justified in creating and performing their own groupings, and have usually done this. I don’t know how others feel, but my own nature, perhaps obsessive-compulsively, prefers this music presented in a more orderly fashion, as is done on both these CDs. Otherwise it is difficult for these abstract miniatures to acquire identities of their own; in loose ad hoc groupings they can easily evaporate from one’s memory. It is probably their taxonomical anonymity that accounts for the relative neglect of most of these pieces within Scriabin’s output. (Exceptions are theÉtude, Op. 2, No 1, and the Étude, Op. 8, No. 12, and it is perhaps no coincidence that they are especially simple in concept and style — though not in execution.)

Given their due attention, Scriabin’s miniatures are marvels of subtlety, inventiveness, and eloquence of expression within a format of extreme brevity, while revealing a consummate mastery of the piano’s artistic resources. Furthermore, viewed chronologically, as these recordings encourage, they provide a fascinating overview of the composer’s extraordinary stylistic evolution, over the course of some 25 years, from the conventional language of romantic pianism to a highly idiosyncratic form of atonality that reveals a rarefied visionary realm of exquisite mystery and sensitivity. This course of development is quite apparent just from a consideration of pieces called Préludes alone. In fact, they reveal that Scriabin’s stylistic evolution was really gradual and continuous, without clear points of demarcation or departure, despite the fact that commentators typically divide his work into three discrete “periods.”

Although the Préludes appeared throughout his career, they were especially plentiful during the earlier years, so that Volume 2, the second half of the young Dutch pianist Paul Komen’s complete traversal, begins with Opus 17 (1895-6, shortly before the second sonata). Reviewing Volume 1 in Fanfare 16:3 (pp 236-7), William Zagorski also praised the chronological format, while describing Komen’s performances as “well-crafted, probing, and revealing,” but “lacking … that last ounce of impetuousness and diablerie that so distinguishes Horowitz’s general approach to Scriabin.”  Although I believe that the Scriabin performance standard today has surpassed Horowitz’s limited level of insight, I would generally agree with Zagorski’s assessment of Komen, who displays considerable sensitivity and technical assurance in readings that are competent and interpretively informed, but diligent, rather than revelatory or inspired.

Scriabin’s Études fall within his output in such a way as to suggest the three stylistic “periods” noted earlier. The Opus 8 group (1893-95) inhabits the rhetorical world of Chopin, while revealing the Russian’s own distinctive personality. The Opus 42 group (1903) dates from the amazingly fruitful time when Scriabin had just resigned from the Moscow Conservatory to concentrate on composition. These sumptuously-textured but well-focused pieces go far beyond their models in plumbing a unique psycho-emotional sensibility while presenting extraordinary technical challenges to the pianist. The brief Opus 65 set (1912) ventures into the bizarre realm of fragmentary gestures and nightmare images to which Scriabin’s internal odyssey ultimately led.

Veteran Russian cosmopolite Nikita Magaloff was born the same year the Études, Op. 65, were composed, and he has known Scriabin’s music since childhood. However, his intelligence and experience are not supported by the thorough technical mastery necessary to give eloquent voice to the musical content. Hence his readings of the earlier pieces are marked by some awkwardness — even obviousness — while the later pieces fail to come to life altogether, as all energy seems expended in simply playing the notes and attempting to delineate the textural layers.

I would like to hear recordings of this music by the German pianist Volker Banfield and by the Russian Vitalij Margulis, whose performances of Scriabin are among the most fullyconvincing I have ever encountered. 

BARBER: Symphony No. 2. Adagio for Strings. BRISTOW: Symphony in F-sharp minor, Op. 26.

BARBER: Symphony No. 2. Adagio for Strings. BRISTOW: Symphony in F-sharp minor, Op. 26. Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. CHANDOS CHAN-9169 [DDDI; 72:37. Produced by Ralph Couzens and Charles Greenwell.

Barber’s Second Symphony reappeared on recording in 1989, after an absence of nearly 40 years, in a performance by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Andrew Schenck (who died last year) on the Stradivari label (SCD-8012). At that time I discussed the history of the work, possible reasons for Barber’s misgivings about it, and my own reaction to it from today’s standpoint (“Samuel Barber: A Once-Suppressed Symphony…”Fanfare 12:6, pp. 54ff), and I refer the interested reader to that article. Re-reading it myself, and listening to this new recording, I note that my opinion of the work hasn’t changed, so I will take the liberty of quoting some of those comments: “Though the Symphony No. 2 may not be the most authentic product of Barber’s inner character, … this factor does not necessarily diminish the experience of the work for the listener…From the expansive theme that opens the first movement, one encounters an assertive tone — even an aggressiveness — virtually unprecedented in the composer’s work, somewhat akin in spirit to the opening of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony and in language to the first movement of Prokofiev’s Sixth …. The first movement as a whole is gripping throughout — taut, virile, solidly and tightly — if conventionally — structured…. A distinctly American quality, not previously heard in Barber’s music, appears throughout the work….[In the second movement) “the Americana flavor comes to the fore, with a wistful, nostalgic poignancy that he later developed in Knoxville and other works.

“The third movement brings a renewed sense of determination and militance. In a sense, this is the most ‘abstract’ movement, with contrapuntal passages that bring both Harris and Hindemith to mind, as well as a Walton-like glibness that robs the triumphant conclusion of some of its power and conviction.

“On the whole, however, this is a work that ranks without apology alongside the best American symphonies of the (1940s). In it Barber explored a harsher, more athletic, and more extroverted type of expression than he had in the past. He also produced a fine symphonic structure — more ambitious and complex than its predecessor — and this was no minor accomplishment for a composer who was rarely at his best in extended abstract works.”

I found the New Zealand reading to be “a stunning performance and a tremendously convincing argument on behalf of the work itself. I suspect that as a result of this release Barber’s Symphony No. 2 will return to the active repertoire.”

The new performance, featuring the Detroit Symphony under the direction of Neeme Jarvi, is predictably tighter and more polished than the New Zealand rendition — but not by such a wide margin. The Chandos sound quality is, however, significantly more resounding than the Stradivari.

Chandos and Jarvi have chosen as a discmate to the Barber Second the Symphony (No. 3?) in F-sharp minor by George Frederick Bristow, one of America’s more prominent musicians during the middle of the 19th century. In addition to composing, Bristow played violin in the New York Philharmonic, was active as a conductor and an educator, and advocated vigorously for the performance of music by Americans. Though his lifetime coincided with those of Franck and Bruckner, his own music calls to mind more the works of Mendelssohn and Schumann — or perhaps their lesser contemporaries.

I must confess that listening a few times to Bristow’s 1858 symphony was something of a chore, as I found it almost impossible to remain focused on it, except when jarred to attention by the awkward and incongruous junctures that hold its patches of predictable banalities together. The harp makes some unexpected appearances as well. That relatively small number of listeners interested in a historical perspective on American music will probably want to hear what Bristow’s music sounds like and, I must say, Jarvi and his Detroit musicians play the piece with tremendous conviction. But for most listeners, the pairing is rather unfortunate.

In view of the foregoing, and despite Detroit’s superior performance of the Barber Second, I would urge those not yet familiar with this work to obtain the budget-priced all-Barber program on Stradivari.

BARBER: Complete Works for Solo Piano – Excursions, Op. 20. Sonata, Op. 26. Souvenirs, Op. 28. Nocturne, Op. 33. Ballads, Op. 46.

BARBER: Complete Works for Solo Piano. Eric Parkin, piano. CHANDOS–CHAN 9177 [DDD]; 63:04. Produced by Mike George. Excursions, Op. 20. Sonata, Op. 26. Souvenirs,Op. 28. Nocturne, Op. 33. Ballads, Op. 46.

This is a very disappointing new release, I am sorry to report. To my ears, Parkin is simply the wrong pianist for this music, veiling it all under a lazy, nostalgic haze. Yes, there is that element in Barber’s character, and in some of these pieces in particular, but it doesn’t need to be exaggerated; in fact, sometimes it needs to be counter-balanced. For example, Barber’s foray into salon music, Souvenirs, is pure nostalgia, and I suspect that this is this piece that holds the greatest appeal for Parkin, because he plays all the music on this disc as if this campy ballet were the aesthetic standard-bearer. Yet even Souvenirs sounds lumpy and rhythmically slack in Parkin’s hands, thoroughly lacking the necessary flair and panache.

Excursions, Barber’s genteel distillation of American vernacular styles, such as the blues, hoe-down, and boogie woogie, is already so tender-footed that it benefits from a performance that offers a little backbone. However, Parkin’s soft-focus reading makes the piece sound tepid and silly. 

The late Ballade, whose theme and mood recall the much earlier Music from a Scene from Shelley, is a very weak piece, written when Barber was suffering from depression and alcoholism. It is a stillborn effort, and Parkin is unable to bring it to life.

But the problematic Sonata is a real disaster: Parkin seems thoroughly unresponsive to the elements of dramatic conflict and visceral energy inherent in the work. Indeed, he seems almost to recoil from them, resulting in the limpest and most anemic performance I have ever heard. The concluding fugue, which usually creates a sensational effect, simply falls flat.

The only piece that really comes off successfully is the 4-minute Nocturne, a haunting homage to Chopin that calls for precisely the dreamy approach that Parkin lends to everything here.

Despite all the attention it has received during recent years, Barber’s piano music still awaits a convincing advocate.

FLAGELLO: Symphony No. I

Symphony No. 1 by Nicolas Flagello

Nicolas Flagello composed his Symphony No. 1 during the years 1964-68; it was first performed in 1971, with the composer himself conducting the symphony orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music.  It is Flagello’s largest and most ambitious abstract work and is, in many ways, a definitive statement of his identity as a composer and as a human being.  That is, like most of his music–and that of many of his beloved late-Romantics–it is emotionally autobiographical.  At the same time, it is a work of consummate compositional mastery and discipline, a virtual textbook of classic symphonic technique.

The work opens boldly with a three-note motif that is the basis of the entire symphony.  The first movement, Allegro molto, is an explosive sonata-allegro, in which a violently agitated first theme is offset by a brooding, restless second theme, which ultimately achieves the major climax of the movement.

The second movement, Andante lento, opens with recitative-like passages that gradually lead to the body of the movement, a long-breathed lyrical outpouring that ebbs and flows with the immediacy of an operatic scene, though the basic three-note motif is woven throughout.  This aria for orchestra builds to a towering climax, before returning to the recitative-like passages with which the movement opened.

The third movement, Allegretto brusco, is an ironic scherzo with grotesque and sinister undercurrents, based on an inverted form of the basic motif.  An eerie trio section offers a brief  but unstable moment of respite, before the scherzo returns in modified form.  This leads to a stretto, culminating in a wildly demonic outburst.  The movement concludes on a note of uncertainty and anticipation that sets the stage for the mighty finale to follow.

The fourth movement, Ciaccona: Maestoso andante, opens with a majestic tutti statement that conceals a bassline created from an extended retrograde elaboration of the symphony’s basic motif.  The chaconne that follows is built on that bassline.  A series of 19 strict variations gradually becomes increasingly agitated, leading to a return of the opening majestic statement.  Now a series of freer developmental variations follows, which create the effect of a poignant, bittersweet interlude.  However the moment of tenderness soon turns ominous and tense, leading, after a total of 26 variations, to a vigorous fugue of which both subject and countersubject are transformations of the chaconne bassline.  The fugue proceeds, further developing all the movement’s thematic material in increasingly concentrated fashion, rising to an intense emotional pitch.  A stretto then culminates in a stark triadic statement of the chaconne theme that is both triumphant and defiant, leading the work to an extremely hard-won conclusion.

After its first performance, Music Journal described Flagello’s Symphony No. 1 as “a really notable addition to the literature.  The work is beautifully expressive, doesn’t meander, and is brilliantly orchestrated to boot . . . . Nicolas Flagello is a major talent and one looks forward to hearing him and his symphony continue to give pleasure to audiences the way they did this night.”