This is the last in the series of Barber's orchestral music with Marin Alsop conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It includes one very familiar work--the Capricorn Concerto--and several that are almost never heard, including his witty 9-minute one act opera, 'A Hand of Bridge.' Of these only the Capricorn has had multiple modern recordings as far as I'm aware. And Alsop's and the RSNO's performance of this sprightly piece, whose instrumentation is the same as that of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto (trumpet, oboe, flute, strings), is as good as any I've heard. I've always been taken with its third movement, with its virtuoso trumpet part, and we are not let down by trumpeter John Gracie. As good as he is, oboist Stéphane Rancourt and flutist Karen Jones are his equals.
'A Hand of Bridge' was composed for the Spoleto Festival, founded by Barber's long-time companion Gian-Carlo Menotti, who wrote the libretto for it. It is for four singers who alternate intoning the business of bidding and playing a hand of bridge and singing arioso internal monologs mostly about the other players. It is nicely done here, but Naxos would have done us a favor by printing the libretto in the jewel box insert because even though it is in English, too many words are lost when sung. The excellent soloists are Lesley Craigie, soprano, Roderick Williams, bass, Louise Winter, mezzo, and Simon Wall, tenor.
'Mutations from Bach,' (sometimes called 'Meditation on a theme of Bach'), written late in Barber's life and for his own amusement, is for brass and timpani. This six-minute piece presents four harmonizations of the plainsong 'Christ, thou lamb of God' starting with that of Joachim Decker from the 17th century, then Bach's harmonization (from BWV 23, the cantata 'Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn'), then Barber's own, followed by a repeat of the Decker. They are all of course orchestrated by Barber for brass (4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, plus timpani). This is an extraordinarily beautiful work and is played gorgeously here by members of the RSNO.
Next is the 'Intermezzo' from Barber's beautiful opera 'Vanessa' (which has been taken into the repertoire of many opera companies and which has in the past year had two excellent new recordings). The Intermezzo comes in Act III and is a heartbreaking psychological portrait of the spurned Vanessa. I love this piece (well, I love the whole opera, truth be told) and this performance is both wrenching and consoling. Lovely.
The last work Barber attempted was a concerto for oboe and strings. It was supposed to be for Harold Gomberg, the long-time principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic. But Barber did not live to finish it. Indeed, he wrote only one movement and even that had to be completed by his student, Charles Turner. It is an elegiac pastorale in which the oboe sings as a great soprano might. I'd never heard it before and fell in love with it immediately. It is spare, haunting, echt-Barber with those long romantic lines, those harmonic cross-relations so Bachian and yet so modern. Oboist Stéphane Rancourt plays like an angel, with unearthly breath control, sensitive phrasing, subtle dynamic variation, and lovely tone. This is a nine-minute aria that will tear your heart out.
Finally, the almost impressionistic 'Fadograph of a Yestern Scene.' The title is taken from Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake.' That evocative title tells us precisely what to expect in this nostalgic and dreamlike reminiscence of other times. In some sense it is a wordless companion to Barber's other nostalgic masterpiece, 'Knoxville: Summer of 1915.' A glorious end to a glorious series of recordings by Alsop and the RSNO. There is no a bad performance in the whole six CD series. I would guess that eventually Naxos will combine them into a boxed set, but why wait?