WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; The School for Scandal Overture; First Essay for Orchestra
PERFORMER: Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559024
Angels and demons contended for the musical soul of Barber. His angels wanted him to write theme music for Little House on the Prairie, at which he was very good. The demons had noticed that strange things were going on in music in the 20th century and tempted him to take part. The first movement of the Second Symphony, written while Barber was enmeshed in a separate conflict as a US air force conscript during the Second World War, is a bulletin from the battle front, with a torrid, sternly modern-sounding opening giving way to music to drive a covered wagon to – grinning and chewing an ear of corn – before reasserting the predominantly grim mood. This and the discordant movement that follows make for a more weird and interesting piece than the First Symphony; but Barber was dissatisfied, revising it before withdrawing it altogether.
The First Symphony’s great crime is its lack of crimes: excepting the broad, emotional final movement, it is forgettable; while the First Essay achieves a happier synthesis of moods than either symphony, acknowledging diverse orientations without sounding schizophrenic.
Excellent playing and the Naxos price-tag make this foray into Barber’s confused world highly recommendable. Christopher Wood