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CD Review

Samuel Barber

Orchestral Works

  • Adagio for Strings
  • Médea's Dance of Vengeance
  • Overture to The School for Scandal
  • Second Essay for Orchestra
  • Intermezzo from Vanessa
  • Andromache's Farewell *
  • Gian Carlo Menotti: Overture to Amelia al Ballo **
  • Alban Berg: Interlude from Wozzeck **
  • Vincent d'Indy: Introduction to Fervaal **
* Martina Arroyo, soprano
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
** Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
Sony MHK62837 71'22"
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A classic of the stereo era. The best Adagio on record.

You don't much hear Thomas Schippers's name nowadays, but during the Sixties you wouldn't have been surprised to learn he had turned into the Next Lenny. He made a name for himself mainly in opera, and composers eagerly wrote works for him. Barber and Menotti trusted him with premières, most visibly the disastrous one of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. The production and the critical mauling it received almost completely shut down Barber's career and did little for Schippers's as well. When Bernstein retired from the New York Philharmonic, Schippers was passed over and wound up directing the Cincinnati Orchestra. He died of cancer at a shockingly young age.

Barber's standing among critics probably reached its low point during the Sixties and Seventies. Antony and Cleopatra seemed to give various writers permission to shout in chorus variations on "the emperor has no clothes." Barber's career had been one of the most spectacular among American composers. Only Copland's equaled it. Almost everything Barber wrote entered standard rep, and he almost never had to make do with second-rank performers. A list of his first executants includes Toscanini, Ormandy, Shaw, Martha Graham, Gold & Fizdale, Horowitz, Browning, Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Biggs, and the U.S. Air Force. Ned Rorem, speaking from envy as a songwriter, remarked that Barber had access to an entirely different (and higher) class of singer than almost everybody else. Antony and Cleopatra put paid to that and to a career of prestige commissions. When the opera finally received its first recording, about twenty years later, more than one critic couldn't believe how good the opera really was. For my money, it culminates Barber's style – the most extensive expression and most versatile idiom he ever achieved. What had happened all those years ago?

It would be nice, I suppose, if we all heard with our ears alone, but we don't. It's a truism to say that we bring preconceptions – often having little to do with music per se – to new work. I certainly don't exclude myself, since I have more or less definite ideas of what I want music to do for me. Furthermore (and fortunately), no one segment of listeners – lay, performer, academic, critic, or composer – determines a reputation, although certainly these segments influence one another. When we talk about a reputation or even about preconceptions, we must always ask the question "among whom?" Keep in mind during the following discussion, that exceptions abound within groups.

The lay public likes to think it has no ax to grind, other than wanting to hear something wonderful, but in fact various factions sharpen several. There are, of course, the No Real Music after Mahler group and its counterpart, the No Real Music before Vivaldi gang. One also watches the battles between opera maniacs and symphony die-hards – red ants and black ants occasionally tearing into (when they aren't ignoring) one another. There's the small but intense new-music crowd, some of which struggles hard to maintain Hip and Cool. Academia, as a term of opprobrium, refers to a comparatively small community, which functions like any small town – a combination of boosterism of one's own and intense intramural rivalries. Most of these share, if not taste, an argumentative approach. We tend to find wholesale praise or wholesale condemnation of entire genres, periods, styles, and composers, rather than consideration of individual works. Now, I contend that the latter constitutes the only legitimate basis of aesthetic judgment. Those who disagree should stop reading now, because the rest of this will only aggravate you.

Composers to me constitute an odd group. A good many definitely have their own agendas. Careerism plays, I believe, a small part, but, on the other hand, I haven't surveyed every composer out there. More important, it seems to me, is that composers (or any artist, really) value what they can learn from and use. Vaughan Williams – by me a very fine composer indeed – notoriously remarked that Mahler was "a tolerable imitation of a composer." To him the great figure of early Modernism/late Romanticism was most likely Sibelius. Although one looks in vain for a direct influence of Finn on Brit, nevertheless I believe both share a similar outlook on what a symphony is, for example – one which differs from Mahler's "symphony as world." Britten and Shostakovich, however, adored Mahler's music, and their own symphonic works show the unmistakable signs of influence. If you don't listen carefully, you could easily mistake parts of Shostakovich's Fifth for Mahler.

All of this, of course, affected Barber's reception. Barber had been known for a few pieces: namely, the First Essay, the violin concerto, Overture to "The School for Scandal", some songs, and his mega-hit, Adagio for Strings. He had written all of these fairly early on, in the Thirties. After this, he steadily expanded an essentially song-based idiom, mainly through a very personal take on Stravinskian neo-classicism. He never lost his ability to produce a good tune, but his harmonic and rhythmic range broadened to include more exposed dissonances and jazzier pulses. To this day, I doubt most of the public knows the second or third Essay s, the cello or piano concerto, the Capricorn Concerto, the piano sonata, Toccata Festiva, The Lovers, Antony and Cleopatra or the magnificent Prayers of Kierkegaard. Yet, one could never call him avant-garde, and one detects no trace of specifically postwar trends in his work. He belongs to a fairly large group of great talents, all of whom started before World War II, and who, rather than throwing over the traces, explored and extended from the point of their earlier work: Harris, Diamond, Piston, Thomson, Walton, Milhaud, Poulenc, Hindemith, among others. In general, all these musicians found themselves between the rock of the new-or-nothing and the hard place of the mossback. You would have been pressed to find, after 1965, the names of any of these men on a concert program, and probably not their recent work.

In looking for reasons why the neoclassic idiom was so derided after the war, I can come up with very little other than a natural hankering after the New and Novel Masterpiece. Perhaps one might also mention youth worship. Very few young composers – those born after 1930 – were writing in that style, and very few older composers were producing jolts. The last major jolt of the public for a new work by an older composer seems to me Britten's War Requiem, from the early 1960s, which overwhelmed nearly everybody at the time and cut across the various factions. I find highly revealing of the state of affairs from the Fifties through the Seventies a remark by Aaron Copland, to the effect that it had been a long time since we had a surprise from Hindemith or Milhaud. It didn't seem to occur to Copland that "surprise" might have been an odd criterion. Dodecaphony, space music, and aleatorics offered to many composers a way of coming up with new sounds and avoiding what felt like the cliches of classic Modernism. To some, it also seemed the Next Step Forward, a term that indicates a belief in progress in the arts, a dubious proposition. Last time I checked, Homer wasn't necessarily a poet inferior to Holländer nor Bach a composer less than Babbitt. Some critics, following Adorno, began putting forward dodecaphony especially as the music of our time (and accept no substitutes), most expressive of the Zeitgeist. First, I don't see how any work of art can not be of its time. Using an "earlier" style itself says something about the time. Second, the Angst -ridden music produced by most of the avant-garde had very little to do with especially American optimism in the Fifties and Sixties. Third, postwar composers generated their own set of cliches. In short, the avant-garde confused the merits of a technique with the merits of a particular composition.

All of this affected Barber's reputation. Academia became the great patron of the avant-garde, but then Barber had never been really solid in the academy. Furthermore, since younger composers tended to ignore the previous generation, postwar academia ignored Barber's music even more. Performers continued to play Barber, but generally only the pieces from the Thirties. The output of his remaining forty years of composing still lies under a cloud. The folks who walk out of concerts so they don't have to listen to a Nielsen symphony found Barber's works too confusing. The new-music zealots heard in Barber's music only what was common to everybody else and missed his individual voice. They reacted as if someone had tried to foist on them second-hand Raff.

However, people who "just listen" couldn't get enough of Barber – and still can't, if sales of the "Adagio" CD (every single arrangement of the Adagio for Strings) mean anything. Small labels like Desto, Koch, Louisville, Cambridge, New World, and MusicMasters kept his output from all periods before the public. It has paid off. Barber's stock has boomed. Big names rush to record (and re-record) his work. For much of his music, you get a choice of performers. Even in New Orleans, the classical-music backwater where I live, he shows up on the local symphony program. Kiddie violin virtuosi sail through his concerto, apparently vying with the Mendelssohn as the first vehicle for fiddle prodigies. The critical wars of the Fifties and Sixties have apparently played themselves out. Most now look at Barber as they look on any classic – that is, pretty much without extra baggage.

Of all Barber CDs, this one may very well be my favorite, with superb performances of both the familiar and the less-known. If someone has recorded better readings than this, they've passed me by. Schippers always zeroed in on where Barber's emotional payoff could be found, and the New York Philharmonic – with probable help from the Columbia engineers – sounded massive and rich, just the sort of sound these pieces cry out for. Even live, I've never heard the orchestra – or any orchestra, for that matter – sound that good, but I don't complain, God knows. Schippers and the sound combine to allow Barber's music to overwhelm you. Good taste is overrated. Given the musical affinity between Schippers and Barber, I find it surprising that they never were personally all that close, but it says a lot for Barber that he wrote Antony and Cleopatra primarily at Schippers's urging. "You're a very persuasive young man, Tommy," he reportedly said.

Médea's Dance of Vengeance began as a ballet, Cave of the Heart, for Martha Graham. Like Copland's original Appalachian Spring, the work uses a small chamber ensemble, practical for a touring troupe, although Barber can make few sound like many. The music, however, was bigger than the ensemble, and Barber began to recast it for symphony orchestra. He created a Médea Suite and even made a rare conducting appearance for probably the first recording. The suite seldom gets played, and I suspect that Barber withdrew it. He kept tinkering and came up with the sequence Médea's Dance of Vengeance (I believe sometimes billed as Médea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance). The last version seems to receive the most recordings. All three versions of the work have been recorded: Cave of the Heart on Koch, the suite conducted by Hanson on Mercury, and on the Schippers here. For those who think of Barber as a Lovely Tonal Composer, much of this music will come as a shock, as wayward chromatic lines depict the growth of Médea's resolve to murder. Yet even here, Barber comes up with a memorable genius theme, heard in the opening measures for the winds. The work begins quietly, as if parting back the mists of time to mythological Greece. It becomes increasingly agitated as it seems to trace Médea's psychological journey from sorrow at abandonment to vengeance on her husband, Jason, to her rage as she prepares the horrible act, to her triumph over the slaughter of their children. The music unleashes the power of dissonance, with the genius theme returning at the climaxes. This is probably Barber's most advanced score at the time (the Forties), an argument so focused and full of notes that count for something that his considerable reworking and reshaping after the ballet's première doesn't surprise me. Schippers and the New York Phil give a glorious reading – rhythmically stinging where called for, uneasy, terrifying, and ecstatic. The final climax, on Médea's murderous exultation, horrifies and awes at the same time – one of the few examples of genuine tragic feeling in music, where we find the hero's flaw inextricable from the hero's greatness.

A stunning Adagio for Strings follows. For me, each arrangement of the piece takes on its own character: an intimacy in the string quartet version, an almost Old Testament passion in the version for massed strings. I should say that I don't care for the choral arrangement (an "Agnus Dei") at all. The string writing doesn't translate all that well to the voices, and the words seem stuck on, rather than welded to the musical line. As to the string orchestra, the more instruments, the better. Here, the New York Philharmonic steals in from nowhere, all those strings melting at the low dynamic. The piece consists of several dynamic arches – builds and fallbacks. Schippers not only executes the builds well but manages the tougher diminishing of sound seamlessly. Furthermore, he leaves the impression of rising to ever-greater heights. Just when you think the strings couldn't possibly give any more, they pile it on. It's not a matter of mere loudness, but of intensity as well. The final peak before the benedictory closing vibrates through you. Schippers sails through the tempo changes effortlessly. The performance keeps moving inexorably forward, even when it moves slowly. This is a spacious, passionate, noble performance.

The Second Essay, again from the Forties, shows Barber moving from his lyrical, somewhat narrow idiom to the expanded resource and psychology of Médea. Despite its title (and Barber never really was clear about what he meant by the term "essay"), this movement would have graced any symphony. Perhaps its non-sonata, bipartite structure made Barber uneasy, but that's its glory, as far as I'm concerned. The entire 11-minute work grows out of the odd little theme heard in the opening measures. The theme – again, a memorable one – manages to come across as lyrical, but, when you look at it closely, it jumps about like a flea on a hot brick. Barber not only gets these notes to sing, he harnesses them for a driving fugue and praising fanfares during the closing aspiring chorale. Schippers leads the best recorded account I know.

Barber wrote the Overture to "The School for Scandal" practically dewy-fresh from his composition lessons at the Curtis Institute. The work proclaims a new voice in music, with an individual approach to melody not heard before. While I sometimes hear Stravinsky, Brahms, Scalero, and Chopin in Barber's music, whatever I perceive as the core of it remains his own. He also came up with one of the few comic overtures to stand comparison with Mozart – not only sparkling and tender, but well worked-through. Even at this young age, Barber has mastered the late-Romantic orchestra; he can apply bright colors without obscuring the lines, and his string-writing (Barber was a pianist and professional-caliber singer) is amazingly idiomatic besides. Schippers and the New York Phil sparkle in the quick sections and sing in the lyrical ones. Harold Gomberg's oboe spins out a beautiful long line at the song theme, and the New York strings somehow manage to raise the emotional stakes in their answer. Again, I've not heard a better performance, live or recorded.

Andromache's Farewell, as Tim Page's liner notes point out, represents late Barber. It sets the Greek translation of John Patrick Creagh as a scena for solo singer. Sony doesn't provide the text, and Arroyo's diction is only just intelligible with earphones. It's a fine work, although not one you will likely hum. The work it most easily recalls is Barber's own Knoxville: Summer of 1915, but more as contrast. More dramatic than lyrical, the themes have become even more angular, with little trace of the familiar Barber melos. Like Knoxville, Andromache is a bear to sing, although for a slightly different reason; it calls on all the vocal stamina and agility of Knoxville and adds a more unstable and dissonant harmony. The pitches are harder to hit. Arroyo has a few intonation problems, mainly in the quicker passages, but does, all things considered, an heroic job. Barber again shows his mettle as a composer who can delineate shifting moods. The work runs through agitation, desolation, anger, tenderness, and rises to a high dramatic nobility at the close. Arroyo meets the interpretive challenge, and Schippers and his players contribute to the unfolding of the drama with alert playing of a difficult score.

The "Intermezzo" from the second act of Barber's opera Vanessa is just about the only thing that has survived from the opera, despite a successful first run and a complete recording from RCA. I've not heard of other productions or of other recordings. But the four-minute "Intermezzo" has received a number of readings. Vanessa was in fact Barber's first commission from the Metropolitan Opera, and all his life he wanted a popular operatic success to match his friend Menotti's. It didn't happen, and of the two full-length operas Barber wrote (there's also a chamber opera, A Hand of Bridge), Vanessa has dated badly, mainly due to its Menotti libretto – a Chekhovian drama with a dollop of Bergmanian symbolism tossed in. How Barber managed to come up with any decent music for the silly story and pasteboard personae is beyond me. Nevertheless, the opera does contain one splendid aria, sung by a minor character (a doctor), who thereby takes whatever interest we have left in the eponymous heroine. Barber certainly recognized a good tune when he wrote one and turned it into this instrumental, so that the audience could hear it twice. The tune will stop your heart, it's that beautiful, full of nostalgic regret.

From the preceding track on, Schippers conducts the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra," the nom de jeu the Columbia label resorted to when it recorded pick-up groups or legit orchestras that, for contractual reasons, couldn't be listed as themselves. These sessions took place in New York, and I wouldn't doubt that at least some Philharmonic musicians took part, although I don't know for sure. Even so, the quality of playing dips slightly, not that anything sounds out-and-out terrible. However, going from the gorgeous ensemble and tone of the Philharmonic to the Columbia Symphony is like hitting a speed bump. The selections themselves, nevertheless, retain considerable interest. The Menotti overture to Amelia al ballo (Amelia goes to the ball) fizzes like Beaujolais, and somehow the composer gets trumpets to dance. The entire opera, by the way, is a delight. Menotti had a great gift for comic opera and provided three of real wit: Amelia (one of his few works not in English), The Telephone, and The Old Maid and the Thief.

Excepting Lulu and the violin concerto, I've never been a fan of Berg. The Sprechstimme of Wozzeck always hits me as corny, and the vocal stretches seem like so much noodling. The instrumentals, however, fascinate, and I marvel that the same composer wrote both. Schippers turns in a splendidly passionate account, with the orchestra often rising above the rough-and-ready to genuine commitment. In short, they seem to play better than they really know how. The disc also introduced me to D'Indy's Fervaal, or at least this excerpt. I know nothing about the work. To me, it sounds like a cross between Wagner and early Debussy – perhaps part of the petite Bayreuth that sprang up in France in the late nineteenth century. I also wonder about the title, perhaps a bilingual pun: Verfall, German for decay or ruin, and Verwahl, German for choice. The selection goes along a fairly calm road. The mostly placid surface poses the danger of monotony, but Schippers's baton keeps things moving. This listener, at any rate, found himself still awake at the end, and slightly surprised over that.

In terms of sound as well, the Barber LP represented Columbia records at its finest. This digital remastering preserves the beauty, while it eliminates the patina of pops, hisses, and crackles that pitted my vinyl. Music, performance, and sound – a winner.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz