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Samuel Barber: Orchestral Works, Vol.1 / Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 CD
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NAX 8559024; NAXOS - Germania; Classica contemporanea Orchestrale
There's more to Barber than his Adagio for Strings--hijacked by the movies as a universal anthem for wartime angst--so it's great to hear these lesser-known works. His output, particularly the smaller-scale works, offer rich rewards. The overture to Sheridan's witty comedy The School for Scandal is a delightful romp with meandering melodies that conjure up images of wagon trains on the prairie while the haunting expansive theme of the Essay echoes the mood of the Adagio and is not easily forgotten.
Barber's symphonies are somewhat uneven in quality, mainly because of his extensive revisions, and veer from the amazing to the mundane. Alsop and the RSNO create a lustrous sound and the first symphony in particular gives the cracking brass section ample opportunity to show off. It's Sibelian-like qualities couldn't be more different from the second, sounding uncannily like Britten's Peter Grimes written two years earlier in 1942. --Susan Nickalls
Top Customer Reviews
Both symphonies clearly benefit from this approach, as does the 'School for Scandal'overture, with the work appearing much more tightly orchestrated, and with a momentum which appears just right. But perhaps the hidden gem here, and the acid test of the musical performance, is the 'Essay for Orchestra', a delightful miniature which glitters throughout a wonderfully lively and inspired performance. These performances come highly recommended in Gramophone, BBC and Penguin Guides, the latter awarding a coveted 'rosette', while this was also editor's choice in Gramophone. Convinced?
A superb bargain.
Barber’s first symphony (1937) possesses an American self-assurance that fails to dispel profound doubts about the troublesome times in which it was written. Its one movement lasts twenty minutes, but any listener will clearly sense its division into three sections. A contemporary comparison would be Walton’s first symphony in feeling if not in format.
Symphony No. 2 (1943-4) is in three movements and lasts thirty minutes. It is a darker work than its predecessor. The first movement has a nervous energy, a restless questioning; the second possesses a sense of bewilderment; whilst the third sees the nervous energy return in an angrier mood, but this is resolved into resignation at the symphony’s end. One senses a few bad notes here and there, but otherwise this is a good performance with good (but not very good) sound quality.
The other items on this disc are Barber’s ‘School for Scandal’ overture, which brought Barber to notice and was written when he was twenty-three, and his ‘First Essay for Orchestra’. The first is full of the wit and good humour of Sheridan’s original play, and musically is a cross between Strauss’s ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ and Holst’s ‘Beni Mora’. The second is darker and deeper but still communicates with ease.
Overall, then, this is a good set of pieces with a good set of performances. There no doubt are better ones out there, but I was satisfied with Alsop’s work here.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
That said, I find few negatives in the rest of the performances here. I also own the Zinman/Baltimore recording of the Symphony No. 1, and while I remember it is as being a fleet, commanding performance, Alsop's seems its equal. The first movement, given a dutiful Allegro ma non troppo tempo, does seem just a trifle sluggish in Alsop's reading, but the other movements are very well done.
Nothing earthbound about Alsop's performance of Symphony No. 2, which recreates the fear of flying our men in the air experienced during World War II. If you don't know this work (as I did not when I came to this recording), it is certainly worth hearing. It's a troubled and troubling symphony, its airborne gestures, especially in the first movement, being both scenically captivating and dramatic to a T. The lovely Andante brings the only repose in the form of long-breathed melodies with a glacial beauty, interrupted by an icy tumult at its core.
The symphony represents Barber's most forward-looking work, besides the Piano Concerto, so it is interesting to note that in the Second Symphony, which Barber tried to suppress from further peformance and publication, he uses one of the motives that shapes the later work. The third movement of the symphony starts with this restless motive, though Barber doesn't explore it as thoroughly as in the Piano Concerto; he isn't the first composer to recycle promising material. But the third movement of the symphony seems repetitious and static through much of its course, unlike the first two movements. The dramatic peroration caps the symphony admirably, but by then the material of the movement has outworn its welcome, at least for me. Maybe that's the chief reason Barber rejected the work: It had a recalcitrant movement that he couldn't or didn't want to whip into shape. But this is just speculation, and I'm very glad to have made the acquaintance of this thought-provoking work.
Alsop and company make a compelling case for it throughout, as they do for the much more familiar Essay for Orchestra No. 1. Both have all the drama one could wish for, and I have no quibbles here about tempos or phrasing.
The engineer for Naxos' British Isles-based recordings, Tony Faulkner, captures the orchestra in typically warm, full sound.
Along with the Second Symphony, the School for Scandal Overture is well played with a good tempo. The recording by Thomas Schippers remains my favorite but Ms. Alsop turns in a good, spirited performance (it reminds me more of Schenk's recording). The First Symphony and First Essay are beautifully played with the brooding drama and quicksilver lyricism of these works emphasized to good effect. The recording is very good all the details of the orchestration are clear. It is a joy to have this disc even though I already have these works played by other orchestras.