Marin Alsop recorded these two symphonies with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1998. This is the first time I have heard the symphonies; I have no other versions in my collection with which I can make a direct comparison.
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.
This is another Naxos gem in a rapidly growing list. At one time Naxos recordings were too often let down by some fairly rough playing/interpretations, poor recording, or both! Happily this is almost a thing of the past, and as far as this performance and production is concerned, it is easily the equivalent (or better) than any full-price rival. Alsop really makes the strings of the Royal Scottish shimmer and sing with a luminous intensity, while the production gives a lustrous richness to the performance. There is really no better way to sit back in the comfort of your home and slip into some very tasty Barber indeed. 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.
Marin Alsop makes Barber fly in a way no other conductor can. The RSNO gives a haunting performance and this is one of the best recordings of a Barber symphony - ever! Their performance of the Adagio for Strings in March induced tears. This CD is a must in any classical collection.