The Bottom Line
- Fantasic colleection of Barber's works
- Superb performances by extraordinary musicians
- 1953 premier recording of Hermit Songs with Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber
- Sadly, less than stellar performances of Adagio for Strings and Agnus Dei
- Released: June 2010
- 3 CDs, 39 Tracks
- Total Play Time: 3+ Hours
Guide Review - The Music of America: Samuel Barber
Starting strong with a brilliant performance of Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5, with Thomas Schippers conducting the NY Phil, you'd never know by listening, but the piece was actually recorded in 1965. It sounds absolutely amazing! Following, is Dover Beach for Voice and String Quartet, with Barber himself lending his voice as the baritone. Though I understand and greatly appreciate that it is Barber singing (he is perhaps the only composer to sing his own song on a major record label), I'd prefer to hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. You'll also find Barber's Symphony No. 1, String Quartet, Op. 11, and Adagio for Strings wrapping up this first disk. The Tokyo String Quartet plays the String Quartet, Op. 11 beautifully. Its most famous movement (mvmt. II, adagio) inspired the creation of the Adagio for Strings and the similar Agnus Dei (which you'll find on disk 3). My only complaint with the Adagio for Strings, conducted by Bernstein and performed by the NY Phil, is that Bernstein's overly romanticized interpretation gives the piece unnecessary weight. He revels in the chords so much that it ends up sounding like how pulling taffy looks.
The Music of America - Disk 2
Disk 2 begins with the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, with violinist Isaac Stern, conductor Leonard Bernstein, and the NY Phil. This recording is often referred to as the gold standard. There's no doubting its supremacy, but I think the London Symphony Orchestra and violinist, Gil Shaham come very close (See the YouTube video). Next in line is Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra, a one-movement piece with lots going on. Finished and premiered in 1942, the Second Essay for Orchestra was quickly adopted into the repertoires of many leading orchestras. Following, is Medea's Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a. This concert piece was created from Barber's ballet Cave of the Heart (1947). Though exquisitely performed, this is my least favorite piece on the album. Ending disk two is Barber's Sonata for Piano, Op. 26, performed by the remarkable Vladimir Horowitz. He brings power and incredible control to the technically demanding piece.
The Music of America - Disk 3
Rounding out the three disk set is an album of voice, with singers Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, and Frederica von Stade. Leontyne Price sets the bar with her performance of Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24. Though most of Barber's music has a traditional Western-classical sound, this piece is his most "American" sounding. This gives way to Barber's Hermit Songs, again with Leontyne Price at the helm. This recording is of the actual premier performance at the Library of Congress with Barber playing the piano accompaniment! You'll also hear I Hear an Army, Nocturne, the lovely Sure on This Shining Night, Must the Winter Come So Soon?, two pieces from Antony and Cleopatra, and Agnus Dei, which I found lacking in depth and sincerity.