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This review is from: Samuel Barber: Orchestral Works, Vol.2 (Audio CD)
Barber's cello concerto of 1945 remains one of the finest composed for the instrument of the last century, and its popularity continues to grow after initial neglect. The reason for its neglect is probably its extreme difficulty, but with the current generation of super-virtuosos the music is slowly taking its rightful place in the repertory. And what music it is! Considered by Barber and many music critics as one of his most successful scores, the cello concerto contains some of Barber's most beautiful and invigorating writing - all the hallmarks of Barber's style are here: the rich tonal harmony, the rhythmic complexity, the taughtness of architectural structure and the poignent, searching lyricism. The cello sings consistently high above the orchestra with aching passion. Anyone who has any liking for 20th century music should hear this piece. It is exactly between the ravishing beauty of the violin concerto and the powerful drive of the piano concerto.
As to the recording, this one is without a doubt the finest on record. The brilliant young Canadian cellist Wendy Warner has played this piece more than just about anyone, and she understands its dark lyricism and passionate tone better than any of her more famous rivals. This is the first 'great' recording of this work, though Yo-Yo Ma, Gastinel and Nelsova are worth hearing for various reasons. The recordings by Garbousova, Wallfisch, Vogler, Rose, Tobias and Kirschbaum are all servicable, and some are certainly better than others, but none impressed me as much as the Warner. The support that Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is absolutely world class and the recording is astonishingly clear.
The Medea Ballet Suite of 1947 is another of Barber's strongest works and also won great critical acclaim, notably from the notoriously ascerbic Virgil Thomson, who said of it (in his typically guarded style): 'it brings its author suspiciously close to the clear status of a master'. It is a powerful and moving work, even as pure concert music - it juxtaposes harshly dissonant 'modern' harmoy with Barber's trademark lyricism - it is reminiscent of Stravinsky's own early Ballet music, especially the Firebird. It is good to have the whole suite presented here rather than the more commonly presented shorter movement which Barber crafted out of the last three movements of the suite. There is much beautiful woodwind writing that is lost in the cut down version. Again Alsop and the Royal Scottish give a passionate and involving reading that provides great advocacy for this also underplayed work.
The final piece on the CD is the famous Adagio for Strings, which is an arrangement of the slow movement of the string quartet. This is so famous that it is barely worth commenting on, but Alsop gives a flowing, but not fast, reading that is quite welcome after the indulgences of many versions. Not the best recording of this popular classic, but a very fine reading nonetheless.
All in all a superb CD, and at budget price, anyone who has any interest in 20th century music would be a fool to miss it. Another winner from Naxos!