The American composer Samuel Barber came from a musically sympathetic family, and, unlike many other composers, had no difficulties in choosing to follow a career in music. His life was, however, not without difficulty.
Much of it was lived in a relationship with the Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti, as part of what H Paul Moon, director of a recent documentary about Barber, calls ‘a gay underground of classical musicians and composers whose sexuality could never attach to their public identities’.
The frustrations of sustaining this double life seeped into Barber’s music. Consider the slow movement of the Violin Concerto, and its nervy, unremittingly restless finale. The concerto – the finale in particular – was certainly not what the businessman who commissioned it was expecting, and the violinist it was written for never played it in public.
By 1941, when it was finally premiered by the violinist Albert Spalding, its Romantic idiom seemed out of touch with the more obviously innovative styles of 20th-century modernism.
Today we hear the lyrical beauties of Barber’s Concerto differently, and are grateful that he avoided pandering to a particular historical moment. As Barber himself put it: ‘I think that what’s been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel they must have a new style every year. This, in my case, would be hopeless.'
3 of the best recordings of Barber's Violin Concerto
Barber: Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Johan Dalene (violin); Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Blendulf
BIS BIS-2440 (hybrid CD/SACD) 58:47 mins
'Johan Dalene has been making waves over the last couple of years as both a BBC New Generation Artist and as winner of the prestigious Carl Nielsen Competition,' says Julian Haylock. 'Still young, this is his debut recording, and yet he would already seem to possess the same instinct for long-range emotional structures as two of his very own violinist heroes – Maxim Vengerov and Janine Jansen.
'The Barber is perhaps the closest anyone has yet come (at least on disc) to the gold standard of Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein (CBS/Sony) at their early 1960s peak. Dalene plays throughout with an engaging flair, command and emotional range remarkable from such a young player. Even the stylistically mis-matched finale, with its unstoppable moto perpetuo energy, sounds entirely convincing – it fairly dances along here with an engaging skip in its tail, as opposed to the machismo bravado of the interpretative mainstream. Alongside Vilde Frang’s outstanding coupling of Sibelius and Prokofiev, this is one of the finest violin debuts of the last decade.'
Violin Concerto; Capricorn Concerto; Cello Concerto
Kyoko Takezawa (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello), Jacob Berg (flute), Peter Bowman (oboe), Susan Slaughter (trumpet); St Louis SO/Leonard Slatkin
09026 68283 2 DDD
'Let it be said straight away: the performances on this disc are superb,' says Keith Potter. 'In the Violin Concerto, Kyoko Takezawa is a passionate soloist, with a large tone, lots of vibrato (but not too much), care for timbral variety and an infectious spontaneity. And throughout, the playing of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin is alert to every nuance of Barber’s orchestration.
'Two essentially slow, lyrical movements followed by the easy thrills of a throwaway scherzo finale hardly suggest something deeply convincing. But that’s exactly what Barber’s Violin Concerto seems here.'
Keith Potter awarded it the full five stars when he reviewed it
Barber: Violin Concerto; Piano Concerto; Adagio for Strings
Ittai Shapira (violin), Tedd Joselson (piano); Russian PO/Thomas Sanderling, LSO/Andrew Schenck, Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent
'One of the brand new recordings in ASV’s 21st-anniversary Platinum series (see Reissues) is of Samuel Barber’s 1939 Violin Concerto,' says Anthony Burton. 'The young, Juilliard-educated violinist Ittai Shapira gives a conventionally expansive account of the opening movement, spinning a fine line in the upper register but not quite riding the full orchestra. In the slow movement, after an expressive opening oboe melody, he breaks the smooth first solo entry into separate phrases. And the perpetual-motion finale, even at a less breakneck speed than in many rival versions, seems to take him to the limits of his technique – as well as stretching the previously impressive orchestra.'
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Anthony Burton awarded it four stars when he reviewed it