Barber was born into comfortable circumstances in an educated and cultured family, and entered the Curtis Institute at the age of fourteen. His career was marked by notable successes, a few notable disappointments, and a string of awards, including the American Prix de Rome and two Pulitzer Prizes. He was the first American composer to have a work performed by Arturo Toscanini — the aforementioned Adagio, peformed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the maestro’s direction when the composer was all of twenty-eight.
There is nothing really radical about Barber’s music: it sits firmly in the mainstream of twentieth-century American music in the post-Schoenberg, post-Stravinsky modernist vein.
The first selection on this disc, Adagio for Strings, which has been called “an ode to grief,” first saw the light of day as the middle movement from Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11. It receives a remarkably sensitive and intelligent reading here from Thomas Schippers leading the New York Philharmonic in what may be the best performance I’ve heard of this piece for a full orchestra. The tendency is too often toward sentimentality, which is something that Schippers thankfully avoids, allowing the underlying tension in the work to come to the fore to great effect. (I’m afraid I still have to give pride of place on this one, however, to the Kronos Quartet, whose astringent approach brings out the steel underneath and takes the music far beyond what anyone would understand by so polite a word as “melancholy.”) Interesting fact: at one point, the Adagio for Strings was the most-often-downloaded classical work on iTunes.
The Quartet, by the way, is given a wonderful performance on this disc by the Beaux Arts String Quartet, who give full play to the mid-century angst in the almost violent first movement. The sweetness with which they infuse the second movement offers a telling contrast, enough that I forgive them for treading the borders of sentimentality. They also manage to create a fusion of the two moods in the final movement, which is a reprise of the first.
Barber, like his life-long partner Giancarlo Menotti, was a noted composer of operas. The “Intermezzo” from Act II of Vanessa is a compelling piece of music, extraordinarily difficult to typify: an interlude with passages of magical lyricism but also with a dramatic momentum of its own. This one is by Schippers again, this time leading the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.
Drama is also the operative word for the Toccata Festiva, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy with organist E. Power Biggs as the soloist. This one follows the “Intermezzo” from Vanessa and the transition is almost undetectable. It’s a high-relief piece, brooding organ passages played almost sotto voce broken by all-out full orchestral sections.
These are only the selections that appealed to me the most. The remainder, of which there are only three (Summer Music, Op. 31, performed by the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet; Four Excursions, by pianist Andre Previn; and Dover Beach for Voice and String Quarter, Op. 3, by Dietrich Fiscer-Dieskau and the Juilliard String Quartet) — which gives you some idea of the strength of this collection — are appealing enough. It’s really a matter of noting the best of the best, I think.
If anyone is looking to broaden their horizons in American music, this is a good sampler of one of our major composers. I think it can only lead to a flurry of music-buying, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005)