BARBER: Symphony No. 1, Op. 9. Symphony No. 2, Op. 19. The School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5. First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Marin Alsop/cond.

Naxos 559024 [B] [DDD]  TT: 69:47

Naxos lists this as Volume I of Barber's "Complete Orchestral Works" --of which there are fewer than any produced by America's other leading composers, although Barber lived to be nearly 81. The most significant work neglected by conductors and recordists over the years has been the Second Symphony, "a symphonic work about flyers" commissioned in 1943 after he was drafted into the US Air Force. In 1944 Serge Koussevitzky led the world premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to much acclaim, but Barber substantially revised it in 1947 -- a not-uncommon practice for him -- and recorded the piece for English Decca with an ad-hoc London Orchestra. In 1951, however, he ordered his publisher G. Schirmer to destroy the score and parts, having decided it was "not a good work."

After Barber's death in 1981, however, a set of parts turned up in London. From these Andrew Schenck made the first digital recording -- with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for Stradivarius Classics -- and a beauty it continues to be. Schwann/Opus lists it in Vox Box 2 along with the other works from the 1988 original -- the First Essay, Music for a Scene from Shelley, Adagio for Strings, and the School for Scandal Overture that made Barber famous -- plus Symphony No. 1 (from Ljubljana, conducted by Carter Nice, not a performance I think I'd want to hear), and Howard Hanson's Piano Concerto played by Eugene List with Daniel Epstein and the MIT Symphony Orchestra.

I don't know this Vox reincarnation, but hope the warm, natural, spacious sound that Michael Fine produced and Geoffrey Eyles recorded in the NZBC's Wellington Studios was preserved.  The original is a masterpiece, and the late Schenck's performances are eerily intuitive (with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus he also recorded Prayers of Kierkegaard and The Lovers for Koch International shortly before his untimely death). No one I've heard since has shaped Barber's melodies as subtly and sinuously, or led the Second Symphony with comparable drama, coherence and consequent impact. Based on Schenck's testimony, it is Barber's most "modern" work stylistically -- troubling as well as troublesome.

Five years after Schenck's achievement Down Under, the ubiquitous Neeme Järvi recorded both symphonies with the Detroit Symphony, issued separately by Chandos but since combined on a single disc with the Scandal Overture as filler, plus a scandalously vulgar version of the Adagio. To call Järvi's readings generic is to gloss over the Adagio and his incoherent stab at the Second Symphony, which everyone may have been sight-reading! Listened to after Schenck's revelatory performance, and now Marin Alsop's efficient (albeit lightweight) version for Naxos, the Järvi Second doesn't sound like the same piece except in the eerie final moments of the opening movement, which he does stupifyingly well!

Ms. Alsop has taken the lead in a Distaff Sweepstakes over Gisela Ben-Dor and Delia Atlas, although each is a proficient maestra. Her "other" orchestra in Glasgow (the Colorado Symphony is home base) plays with enthusiasm as well as precision, even if the repertory doesn't sound familiar to them. However, Barber's orchestral repertory traditionally has been man's country, and two master Figaros currently represent him on discs, Leonard Slatkin and Gerard Schwarz. Slatkin's Saint Louis reading of Symphony No. 1 for RCA (with John Browning playing the Piano Concerto, plus the slyly sardonic four-hand Souvenirs with his conductor) is the best since Bruno Walter's pioneer version on American Columbia with the New York Philharmonic back in the early '40s. RCA's recording is a more opaque than Naxos' forwardly-placed, no-nonsense sound from Glasgow, but does offer a more realistic hall perspective. Scandal-wise, Schwarz's Seattle Symphony is the pacesetter on a Delos disc that features Bernstein's Arias and Barcarolles (the orchestral version by Bright Sheng authorized and approved by Lenny-B) and an ingratiating performance of Gershwin's An American in Paris, although Schenck phrased the Barber overture's main tune inimitably.

While the Naxos price is right, with everyone intent on honoring the composer, others have done better in all three cases cited, while the First Essay continues to be Eugene Ormandy's own despite its origin 60 years ago, finely remastered on at least two import collections from England. Barring that, Slatkin's version of all three Essays on Angel remains my modern-day favorite. Both make the music eloquent in a way that competence alone cannot achieve.

R.D. (Aug. 2001)