BARBER: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Essay for Orchestra No. 1 (Marin Alsop/ Royal Scottish National Orchestra) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559024)
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Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Orchestral WorksVolume 1
Samuel Barberquickly established his reputation as a composer in the romantic vein. A nativeof Westchester. Pennsylvania, he entered Philadelphia's Curtis Institute in1924, studying piano and composition. His setting of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach won the praise of no less thanVaughan Williams, while his concert overture TheSchool for Scandal, a sparkling evocation of Sheridan's comedy, wonthe Beams Prize of Columbia University in 1933.
Stabbing brasschords lead to a capricious string theme. A brief climax leads to a ruminativeoboe melody of great beauty, taken up by the strings. A bucolic clarinet motifincites greater animation, leading to the work's central climax; cascadingstrings and pounding brass presage the full-blown return of the main theme. Theoboe melody duly reappears, before a short fugato passage leads to a syncopatedcoda and final triumphant flourish.
The overture'spremi?¿re by the Philadelphia Orchestra established Barber's nationalreputation, consolidated by the American launch of his Symphony No.1 by Arthur Rodzinsky and theCleveland Orchestra in 1937. Its succinct and cohesive one-movement designoffers full scope to Barber's expressively intense musical language.
The openingsection, Allegro ma non troppo, featuresa Sibelian theme on strings, punctuated by brass. Cellos introduce a moreintrospective idea, repeated majestically on full brass, before the momentumspills over into the scherzo section,marked Allegro molto, whosestrong rhythmic impetus remains constant, climaxing in an abrasive rhythmicunison. Solo woodwind tail off into the Andantetranquillo section, a plaintive oboe melody over rapt strings.
Violas and cellos develop the mood, before the theme reaches a climax in thewhole orchestra. A restrained yet purposeful idea now emerges, over which thefinal Con moto section grows in asteadily intensifying passacaglia Chiming brass usher in the final statementand, with its opening gesture recalled, the symphony comes full circle in apowerfully rhetorical coda.
The symphony washeard at Salzburg in 1937, attracting the praise of no less than ArturoToscanini, who commissioned Barber to write for his newly?¡ formed NBC SymphonyOrchestra. The resulting Essay for Orchestra,the first of three such pieces, was first performed in New York in1938.
The openingimmediately establishes a fatalistic mood, with richly-divided strings in agrave threnody, gradually becoming more impassioned. Brass cap a briefCopland-like climax, before a return to the pensive opening. The mood changesabruptly as an animated sequence begins on upper strings and woodwind.
Considerable momentum is built up, leading to the climactic restatement of theopening theme, after which the texture thins out, leaving the violins aloft intheir questioning response.
Barber'sconscription into the US Air Force in 1943 led directly to the commissioning ofhis Second Symphony, firstperformed the following year by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston SymphonyOrchestra. Barber revised the work in 1947 and his recording, with the NewSymphony Orchestra, was issued simultaneously in Britain and America in 1951.
Yet the piece failed to establish itself in the concert repertory and Barber,perhaps dissatisfied with a lack of true symphonic integration, withdrew it in1964. Three years later, he took the drastic step of destroying the originalscore and most of the printed copies. Only after his death did a copy surface,allowing the revival of this his darkest and tonally most forward-looking ofhis major works.
The firstmovement's opening gesture immediately indicates a new purposefulness inBarber's writing, its vigorous course highlighting changes in texture ratherthan actual themes; even the arrival of a plaintive oboe idea does not bring arelaxation in tension. The movement builds to its main climax, where stabbingbrass, dive-bombing strings and spitting percussion underline the nature of themusic's genesis. The oboe theme returns in the strings, before the movement'scomponents coalesce in a steely resolution of tensions and anxieties. Theactivity dissipates to leave the violins musing on the opening motif.
The slow movementopens with a rocking motion in the lower strings, the ruminations of a cor anglaiscreating a subdued nocturnal atmosphere. Melodic interest passes to the flutesand clarinets, with strings providing an atmospheric backdrop. The eventualclimax is yearning rather than passionate, strings retaining their mutesthroughout. The main theme returns in expressive colouration to round off oneof Barber's most affecting inspirations: after the symphony's demise, it wasrevised and published as a separate work, NightFlight.
The finale eruptspropulsively on strings and horns, the opening thematic shards energizing someoddly fragmentary textures, before a brusque string fugato generates greaterintensity. Thematic elements from earlier in the work reappear, before themovement's opening returns with new toughness. The peroration is short-lived,and as lamenting strings envelop the texture, the movement seems destined for aresigned conclusion. But the opening returns again with a vengeance, cappingthe symphony in a mood of grim defiance.
In the words of thelate conductor Andrew Schenk, who spearheaded the symphony's revival in thelate 1980s: 'It evokes the majesty of flight, the terror of war, the lonelinessof the skies at night, the triumph of victory, For this reason above all, [it]deserves a better fate than the oblivion assigned to it by its composer,'
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Formed in 1891 asthe Scottish Orchestra, in 1951 the ensemble, now full-time, took the name ofthe Scottish National Orchestra, later assuming the title 'Royal' inrecognition of its importance in the musical life of Scotland. Distinguishedconductors who have worked with the orchestra include Karl Rankl, HansSwarowsky, Walter S??sskind, Bryden Thomson and Sir Alexander Gibson, the lastnamed becoming the first Scottish-born principal conductor in 1959 Neeme Jarvi,who was conductor from 1984 to 1988, is now Conductor Laureate; Walter Weiler,Music Director and Principal Conductor from 1992-97, is now Conductor Emeritus;in 1997 Alexander Lazarev was appointed as Principal Conductor.
The orchestra has a busy schedule in Scotland, including regular seasons in itshome-town of Glasgow, annual appearances at the Edinburgh Festival and regularperformances at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in London. In addition toconcerts in England, the orchestra has travelled to other countries abroad,with tours of North America, Japan, Austria and Switzerland. The widerepertoire of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra extends from the Baroque tothe contemporary. There have been two recent awards from Gramophone magazine and the orchestra hasembarked on a series of recordings for Naxos that will include works byBruckner, Bax, Holst, Alfven and Barber.
Marin Alsop iscurrently Music Director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the CabrilloFestival of contemporary music in California and the Concordia Orchestra in NewYork (which combines classical repertory with American jazz and contemporarymusic). She is Principal Guest Conductor of both the Royal Scottish NationalOrchestra and the City of London Sinfonia Guest engagements have includedappearances with major orchestras throughout Nort