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CD Review

Samuel Barber

Sony 87948
  • Violin Concerto 1
  • Piano Concerto 2
  • Adagio for Strings 3
  • Second Essay for Orchestra 4
  • Overture to The School for Scandal 4
1 Isaac Stern, violin
1 New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
2 John Browning, piano
2 Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
3 Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
4 New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
Sony SMK60004 74:09
Reissued as Sony SBK87948
Amazon - UK - Germany - France - Japan

Summary for the Busy Executive: Terrific.

I had to order this CD from Europe, but I believe it well worth the cost, despite the fact that you can find the Ormandy and the Schippers domestically. We have here two of the best performances of the Barber violin and the piano concerti. Indeed, I haven't heard an account of the piano concerto better than Browning and Szell's – the première recording, by the way. Several very good versions compete with Stern and Bernstein, but they don't surpass it. This performance hasn't staled or faded into obsolescence.

Barber's violin concerto represents the culmination of his early, lyrical style. The first two movements sing a new song, Barber's invention, familiar to anyone who knows the first essay, the first symphony, or the Adagio. However, already in the third movement, one finds adumbrations of the more harmonically and thematically complex work of the Forties, like the second essay, the cello concerto, and Médea. The soap king, Fels (of Fels Naptha), commissioned Barber to write it for a protégé. The story goes (which, incidentally, the liner notes get wrong) that Barber used the money to travel through Europe, wrote the first two movements of the concerto, returned to the U.S. with his score and presented them to the violinist. The protégé criticized them as not virtuosic enough. Barber then wrote a very virtuosic finale. This time the protégé complained that the movement was either unplayable or "too lightweight," depending on whom you believe, and Fels demanded his money back, which, of course, Barber had already spent. Barber then got a Curtis student, with two or three hours rehearsal, to play the last (thus not unplayable) movement for Fels, who dropped the matter. The concerto's popularity among violinists seems rather recent. Nowadays, apparently every big name out there has rushed to record it. I've even heard 11-year-old prodigies play it beautifully. Whatever terrors it held way back in the Thirties and early Forties have obviously disappeared. It always had beautiful, genius melodies, and this, of course, has helped it with both players and public. However, it may be appropriate to say a couple of words about Barber's early style and this concerto, particularly since he has emerged from a decades-long critical cloud. The really interesting question is why he was under such a cloud in the first place.

It strikes me, to some extent, as envy. Barber had commissions and access to performers denied most composers. Up to the Fifties, almost everything he wrote entered standard repertory. In the Thirties, one could have made the case for Barber as a genuine, though minor lyric talent, like Loeffler, for instance. Unlike most American composers at the time, he seemed to have passed Stravinsky by (indeed, he had major reservations about Stravinsky's standing as a composer). He baffled Copland, as far as I can tell from Copland's essay "1936: America's Young Men – Ten Years Later." He characterizes Barber's music as "outmoded," "making up in technical finish what he lacks in musical substance." He retracted this somewhat in the face of Barber's slightly later music, but he still thought the judgment applied to the early works and thus had no clear idea of the innovation of Barber's music and Barber's early lyrical style. Certainly, Barber had no grand musical agenda, unlike Copland, who consciously tried to formulate an American musical modernism. To paraphrase Barber himself, he quietly did his own thing and let others worry about where it all fit. Barber reached his public and critical height in the Forties, when he consciously began to assimilate neo-classicism into his style. The Fifties, of course, brought the 12-tone serial vs. tonal wars, which swept Barber and others away. Nevertheless, people enjoyed Barber's music, and performers enjoyed playing it, despite the contemporary critical orthodoxy. He sold records throughout his eclipse. Eventually, a few years after the composer's death in 1981, writers on music began to get the point. Perhaps music wasn't marching inexorably to dodecaphonic heaven after all. Perhaps there was more to modernism than just Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Barber came back in, apparently secure. The rap against him as "outmoded" now rings historically quaint, as does the same judgment against Brahms.

At any rate, the concerto, first and foremost, sings. Barber, a piano player, nevertheless mastered string writing practically off the dime, with his Op. 1, the Serenade. This concerto and the Adagio may be the two works most responsible for Barber's label as a neo-Romantic. Very few twentieth-century concerti sound so sweetly yearning as the first two movements or so openly virtuosic as its finale. Still, it's not Romantic in the sense that it could have been written in the 19th century . Perhaps only two or three items in his catalogue do, and they're all earlier than the violin concerto. It really is a new song, and the orchestration is gorgeous, with a modern and economic emphasis on clarity, bright wind colors, and an extra wash of sound from an orchestral piano. Bernstein and Barber had very little use for each other's music, but this recording had to have pleased Barber. Stern and Bernstein seldom have played with such heat as well as such judgment. Stern – rather variable in his performances, even in his prime – finds the soul of the instrument. Bernstein for once shapes entire movements and judges the dynamics so well that there is indeed a moment of greatest intensity in each movement – built toward and descended from. This counts among the best recordings of each. I spoke (very briefly) to American violinist Robert McDuffie, who studied the concerto with Barber during the last year of the composer's life and who has become probably its leading current interpreter. The Stern-Bernstein recording not only introduced him to the work but gave him a sense of mission.

The piano concerto, written in the Sixties for Browning and commissioned by Schirmer's for their 100th birthday, was Barber's last major public success. It entered the modern repertory immediately (as did the first Ginastera concerto a couple of years later) after its première with Leinsdorf and the Boston and gave a huge boost to John Browning's career. Browning seems to have played it everywhere. However, his remakes, some of them quite fine, have nevertheless lacked the fire of this recording, where quite simply he and Szell burn down the barn.

For a conductor not known for his accounts of modern music, Szell did a great deal of it and almost always superbly. His history as a proponent of Barber's music goes all the way back to the Forties. He even gave Barber a couple of conducting lessons. For his part, Barber loved Szell's performances of his music. This stands as one of Szell's finest recordings. To high-school me in the Sixties, this concerto seemed to stand just this side of the edge of Way Out. It certainly must have surprised those who expected another Adagio for Strings. But Barber, as I've said, never stood still as a composer. He always tried something new. You may not have liked the results, but you couldn't call him lazy. Here, the idiom represents Barber at his most harmonically advanced, with biting dissonances and wild rhythms. I hear in it affinities with the Piano Sonata, written about a dozen years earlier: a declamatory first movement and a Dionysian finale, a concerto filled everywhere with striking gesture that imprints itself on the brain and rouses the heart. You don't go around whistling these themes, but you don't forget them either. It's a big, deep-breathing, heroic concerto, and the heroism seems pitted against dark forces. I hear Rachmaninoff as its spiritual ancestor. Barber asked Browning to play through his repertoire and was especially struck by the pianist's Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Changes come from the concerto's middle movement: a gorgeous, memorable melody, made for singing. The violin concerto is beautiful. The piano concerto is powerful. Again, I haven't heard a better performance of it than this.

The Schippers selections stand among the very best recordings of these works. However, I recommend the complete anthology CD (with Schippers's shattering performance of the Adagio and Médea, among other things) on Sony MHK62837. The Ormandy Adagio is fine (and available domestically), but not as powerful as Schippers. It's really the concerti that make this disc.

The sound comes from the height of the stereo era. Most of it's a bit bass-y – Columbia favored a "fat" sound back then. Nevertheless, it's not objectionable, except for the Ormandy, which surprisingly is thin and scratchy. This has nothing to do with sound of the Philadelphia, whose strings need no defense from me, but entirely with the digital transfer. The sound of the original LP was gorgeous.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet