WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Adagio for Strings; Essays for Orchestra; Music for a Scene from Shelley; Overture to The School for Scandal
PERFORMER: Baltimore SO/David Zinman
CATALOGUE NO: 436 288-2 DDD
Success came early to Samuel Barber, although it deserted him later in his career. The overture to The School for Scandal, written while he was still a student, was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1933 when the composer was just 23. The Music for a Scene from Shelley followed soon after, and in 1936 came the First Symphony, which had the distinction of being the first American work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival.
Toscanini took up the Adagio for Strings, giving the premiere and subsequently recording it, while Bruno Walter premiered the Second Essay a few years later. It is easy to see how Barber won such distinguished champions. From the beginning, he handled large orchestral forces with the confidence of a master, and the music, richly scored, is full of big, bold melodic ideas in an unashamedly late-Romantic style. No concessions are made to contemporary developments in composition, nor for that matter are there any traces of the wide open spaces and jazz influences to be found in the works of Aaron Copland, for example. Barber was not trying to forge a distinctively American style. His approach remained defiantly and rather old-fashionedly European.
Virtually all the purely orchestral music is included on this disc, and Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra give ideal performances. The ubiquitous Adagio, Barber’s most enduring piece, is played quite superbly by the Baltimore strings, and the symphony is delivered with maximum impact – Argo’s first-rate recording doing full justice to the sonorous brass and thunderous timpani. Not to be played through at one sitting perhaps, but there’s some glorious music here. David Michaels