Barber: Knoxville - Summer of 1915 / Essays for Orchestra Nos. 2 & 3 / Toccata Festival
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Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 / Essays for Orchestra Nos. 2 and 3
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This fifth instalment in 'Naxos' continuing and continuously revelatory series devoted to Barber' music' , conducted by Gramophone Artist of the Year 2003 Marin Alsop, features the ripely romantic Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a 'lyric rhapsody' for soprano
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I commend Naxos for their recording of lesser known works.
This CD also holds the Second and Third Essay for Orchestra, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra beautifully plays both. The Second Essay was commissioned by Bruno Walter in 1942 and is, like his First Symphony, a compact work with enough musical ideas for a longer work. It is good to see the Third Essay, the least recorded of this form, coupled with the Second. The Third Essay, from 1976, is dominated by the opening theme imaginatively scored for percussion instruments. Like the earlier Essays, the third has an abundance of musical ides and moments of beautiful lyricism with an underlying melancholia. An even rarer work of Barber's in the Toccata Festiva for orchestra and organ, written when Mary Zimbalist, a wealthy patron of music, offered to buy a new pipe organ for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Barber was offered a commission by Eugene Ormandy for the Toccata. The work is a miniature concerto for organ with virtuoso playing required from the soloist. The orchestra has a magnificent accompanying role with music written not as a backdrop for the organ but with beautiful long passages that make it a partner in the performance.
This is a very rewarding disc wonderfully conducted by Marin Alsop, who has become the leading Barber proponent with this 5th disc of his music.
Marin Alsop is sympathetic to Barber's idiom, and his flowing lyricism seems well suited to a feminine perspective. Alsop is unusually soft and gentle in Knoxville. When she gets to the Second Essay, her small-scaled reading begins to lapse a bit rhythmically. The playing is lovely, but I don't hear a strong enough point of view. She is meticulous and cautious in the Third Essay. The performance that has real guts is the Toccata, one of Barber's least played pieces--orchestras don't seem to feature organ soloists anymore. But Poulenc had shown the way in modern organ concertos, and here Barber alternates his lush singing style--one of the themes even echos Knoxville--with free-form organ obligattos that Thomas Trotter plays thrillingly on an excelent instrument.
In the end, I wound up enjoying the least familiar work the most. Naxos provides wonderful sonics, and everyone is to be commended for doing Barber the service of letting us hear all his major works.
For a person on a very slim budget, these are OK and there is something to be said about consistency. But, for those who want something more definitive, you must search out the recordings by Thomas Schippers. His recording of Medea's Dance, the Adagio (the only version to own), the Second Essay and the School for Scandal with the NYPO are infinitely superior despite the dated sound. Then, you have his recording of the Knoxville with Leontyne Price. Regarding the Toccata, Schippers never recorded the work but he was the person Barber went to when he needed help with writing the organ part. Generally, the superior version is the one by E. Power Biggs with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.