BARBER: Piano Concerto / Die Natali / Medea's Meditation

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Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Piano Concerto • Die Natali • Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

Commando March

Although the Second Symphony (Naxos 8.559024) was the major musical undertaking of Samuel Barber’s war service, he preceded it with the Commando March in E flat major, composed in February 1943, and first performed by the Army Air Force Technical Training Command Band on 23rd May that year. Recorded by the Edwin Franko Goldman Band, it was broadcast around the world under the auspices of the Office of War Information. Scored for enlarged concert band, the march is in three sections, with an introduction and coda. Barber soon orchestrated it, and this version was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky on 29th October 1943.

The ballet Medea has a complex history. To a commission from Martha Graham, for the Second Annual Festival of Contemporary Music, Barber began work to a scenario entitled Cave of the Heart. The first version, completed in April and scored, like Copland’s Appalachian Spring, for thirteen instruments, was first performed at Columbia University on 10th May 1946, under the title Serpent Heart. The original title was reinstated for the New York première on 27th February 1947, by which time Barber had reworked the score into a seven-movement suite for full orchestra, preferring the title Medea, after the principal character. In 1955, he telescoped the suite into one continuous movement, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, first performed by the New York Philharmonic and Dimitri Mitropoulos on 2nd February 1956. The suite has been recorded on Naxos 8.559088, and its fourth, fifth and seventh movements are reworked into the present piece.

The opening, xylophone echoing against static strings, creates a tangible atmosphere, enhanced by questioning woodwind and brass, while a haunting violin motif will be a crucial source of the work’s evolution. Strings introduce a more expressive tone, and a brief climax is reached on the opening woodwind idea. The music now takes on an angular, Bartókian rhythmic motion, and a lonely cor anglais sounds out over piano and harp chords and ricocheting side drum. This quickly becomes more animated, and a further, more sustained climax on the opening idea leads to a syncopated motion on piano, over which wind and strings engage in animated dialogue. The orchestration grows fuller and more aggressive, culminating in a plangent outpouring for strings and brass, developed from the violin motif, before the rhythmic activity re-emerges, driving to a hectic and decisive conclusion.

Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, Die Natali was begun in July 1960 and completed that November. The première, by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, took place on 23rd December. As its title suggests, the piece draws on Christmas carols for its thematic ideas, putting them through a series of ingenious harmonic and contrapuntal devices as it does so. After strings and brass have intoned O come, O come, Emmanuel, individual orchestral groups play variations on Lo, how a rose e’er blooming. An extended treatment of We three kings is followed by animated variations on God rest you merry, gentlemen, with a brief appearance from Good King Wenceslas, before Silent Night is heard. There are further variations on O come, O come, Emanuel, then, over an ostinato derived from Adeste fideles, the work reaches a culmination with Joy to the world. Silent Night returns to effect a quiet close.

Barber began his Piano Concerto in March 1960. John Browning was the intended soloist from the outset, the work being written with his keyboard technique in mind. The second movement had begun life as an Elegy for flute and piano in the summer of 1959, the composer slightly extending it in the process of orchestration. Although the first two movements were completed before the end of 1960, the death of Barber’s sister in July 1961 and an invitation to attend the Congress of Soviet Composers in March the following year impeded further work. Not until 9th September 1962 was the final movement completed, just in time for the première, in which Browning was joined by Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, on 24th September. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 and the Music Critics’ Circle Award in 1964, the Piano Concerto marks the zenith of Barber’s public acclaim.

The soloist opens the work with an imperious cadenza passage, brusque orchestral chords presaging the agitated first theme. This is developed in capricious dialogue between piano and woodwind, before flute and horn round off the section with a brief codetta. The oboe now introduces the plaintive second theme, given more expressive treatment by strings before an anticipatory interlude reintroduces the soloist. Its rippling ostinato motion sees aspects of the first theme discussed, before a brief recall of the second theme, and a purposeful drive to the movement’s climax, from where the soloist leads off with a virtuosic cadenza. At its apex, the orchestra re-enters stormily with the first theme, and a modified reprise takes place, the second theme dreamily expressive on piano then strings. This moves directly into a brief but vivid coda, the first theme defiant on full orchestra. The Canzone opens with a gently undulating motion on strings, over which solo woodwind spin a wistful melodic idea. This is taken up by the soloist, and a bitter-sweet dialogue ensues. Strings mark the movement’s mid-point with a hushed interlude, before the soloist develops the theme into an intricate arabesque. The orchestra muses further, and the movement ends in gentle resignation. This is in contrast with the Finale, which bursts in with an angry brass gesture, the soloist heading off with an energetic idea spanning the full range of the keyboard. Over a skeletal xylophone, the dryly ironic second theme is heard, before the initial motion drives to a brief climax. The second theme now resumes as a perky dialogue for woodwind over pizzicato strings, the soloist adding a subtle commentary which draws in the whole orchestra. The first theme is distantly recalled by solo wind, tension increasing remorselessly as the soloist spurs the orchestra on in a final dash to the finish.

Richard Whitehouse
Item number 8559133
Barcode 636943913321
Release date 09/01/2002
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Prutsman, Stephen
Prutsman, Stephen
Composers Barber, Samuel
Barber, Samuel
Conductors Alsop, Marin
Alsop, Marin
Orchestras Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Disc: 1
Commando March
1 Allegro appassionato
2 Canzone: Moderato
3 Allegro molto
4 Die Natali, Op. 37
5 Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 29A
6 Commando March
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