BARBER: The first recordings of Overture to The School
Op. 5; Adagio for Strings, Op. 11; Capricorn Concerto, Op. 21; Dover
Beach, Op. 3; Essay No. 1, Op. 12; Cello Sonata, Op. 6;
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9.
David Lennick produced and transferred the cherishable contents of this British CD. "Digital noise reduction by Graham Newton" has not, happily, detracted from the sound as, for example, CEDAR can and has done when application is ham-handed. Technically, my only caveat is insufficient space between the selections---not only denying them time to register as music but to prepare for technical anomalies by three companies over a 16-year period---from 1931 through 1947.
The oldest recording is of the earliest music, Barber's somber setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach, recorded by RCA Victor in a Camden, NJ, studio. The composer, trained as a singer, performed it himself with the Curtis String Quartet. His voice reminds me of the young GÈrard Souzay, and the Curtis Institute's resident quartet matches his exacting standards. No one has done the song better since, and recorded sound is a wonder. But then anyone who has heard Bell Labs' early stereo experiments during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1930-31 season in the Academy of Music knows their already startling level of achievement.
Werner Janssen (once married to the 1930s film actress Ann Harding) had a varied career as conductor, stage and film composer, even cafÈ pianist. He was the music director in Baltimore before moving in 1940 to Los Angeles, where he formed "the Janssen Symphony Orchestra" (film-studio players mainly) and kept it alive until 1952. One of their three recordings for Victor was this 1942 disc of the Overture to Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Restoration comedy, A School for Scandal---Barber's graduation piece from the Curtis Institute. Full-blooded sound is a little nasal, but the performance is accurate (although Barber thought it "lacking something in drive, in lightness and elegance," according to Pearl's able annotator. To be sure it hasn't the buoyancy of recordings by Thomas Schippers, Leonard Slatkin or Gerard Schwarz, even though timings are virtually the same (8 minutes plus or minus a few seconds).
Barber extracted the Adagio movement from a string quartet composed in Europe, which Toscanini introduced in 1938 with his newly formed NBC Symphony. RCA recorded it in Carnegie Hall (not Studio 8-H, thank God) on March 19, 1942, just before James Caesar Petrillo's ban on union recordings in the U.S. There isn't the voluputuous sound heard on a glut of recordings since, but Toscanini's perception of the music's structure and expressive destination remains a wonder, startlingly beautiful in the prolonged final measures.
Essay No. 1 (there would be two more) was a work from the same period as the Adagio, intended for Toscanini. But this first recording was made in 1940 by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (misidentified here as "Philharmonic Orchestra," sans city). In his first revision of The Guide to Recorded Music, Irving Kolodin put it perfectly: "An inspiring statement of the music in this piece, played with affection and splendidly reproduced." No matter an incestuous relationship between the main theme of the Adagio and the principal subject of Essay No. 1, one can only add "Amen." For me it is the glory of this collection.
The Cello Sonata was yet another prewar work---written early on in Barber's quasi-marriage to fellow-student Gian Carlo Menotti, and unabashedly ardent music. It doesn't hang together too well structurally, but the ingredients are impassioned. This 1947 recording for the Concert Hall Society (which released its LPs on red vinyl) was a Manhattan studio performance by the Russian cellist Raya Garbusova, and one the era's best piano accompanists, Erich Itor Kahn. Madame dug in with a gusto that sometimes coarsened the music and vulgarized its romance, but as a Chicago concert manager once noted admiringly, "she plays a lot of cello." My generation learned the music through her vividly recorded performance.
The Capricorn Concerto was a wartime piece that conductor Daniel Saidenberg requested. It signaled Barber's acknowledgement of Stravinsky'’s Neo-Classicism, then all the rage---terse, tart, oddly attractive music. Concert Hall Society's 1946 recording has everything going for it but auditorium sound, although a dry studio acoustic lets us hear all of the details as well as a balanced ensemble. And what an ensemble---Mitch Miller on oboe, Julius Baker on flute, Harry Freistadt on trumpet, and a first-class chamber orchestra bearing the conductor's name. But do Barber a favor: play each work independently, or you'll be shocked by the segue from Carnegie Hall sonority in Adagio for Strings to the suddenly dry (but not unpleasant) acoustic of Capricorn Concerto.
Symphony No. 1 (in One Movement) was written in 1936, introduced at Rome by Bernardino Molinari, and taken up by Artur Rodzinski who conducted it widely. In 1942, Barber revised the music, and that's the version Bruno Walter chose to learn, played with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony in 1944, and recorded for Columbia (later CBS and now Sony) when Petrillo lifted the ban in 1945. It has a leaner sound than RCA Victor favored but is fine for the needs of the music. Walter was no friend of new music after the Weimar Republic imploded and he became a refugee from Hitler's exterminators, but his command of the First Symphonys overall shape and details remains a wonder as well as a surprise.
Historically, this issue is not likely to be duplicated, nor as well (apart from the lack of space between each piece). If the music speaks to you and mono sound is no deterrent, the performances by Toscanini, Ormandy and Walter are surpassingly eloquent, and Saidenberg joins them in the winner's circle. The Capricorn Concerto moves me less than other Barber works, but I have yet to hear a better performance than this first one on discs.
R.D. (Oct. 2000)