BARBER: Symphony No. 2, Op. 19; Cello Concerto, Op. 22; Medea–Suite, Op. 23 – Zara Nelsova, cello/New Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Barber
Naxos Historical 8.111358, 79:34 [Not Distributed in the U.S.] ****:
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn resurrects several performances led by American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) that he led with the New Symphony Orchestra in London’s Kingsway Hall 11-13 December 1950. The knottiest of the scores remains Barber’s wartime Second Symphony (1944; rev. 1947), which he subsequently rejected and preferred to suppress. Yet even its stormy and astringent first movement reveals the lyrical side of the composer that his admiring public esteems. Barber’s own conductor skills found solid mentorship with Fritz Reiner, who often led concerts and master classes at the Curtis Institute. The studio orchestra responds well to the rhythmic and dynamic requirements of the generally angular, tormented score–a celebration of the courage and dangers of American Air Force pilots– although its second movement, Andante, un poco mosso, found independent existence as “Night Flight,” Op. 19a. A nocturne and dirge combined, the movement casts a nobly gloomy series of shadows, infiltrated by plaints that we take as love-themes. The last movement moves in twitters and violent surges of energy, reminiscent of energies we know from Vaughan Williams and Walton’s First Symphony. The textures move lithely or thunderously, as directed. The music becomes intensely polyphonic and martial, and we might hear the influence of Bartok’s night music even as the work rises to a potent conclusion.
The major attraction of this restoration would be the 11 December 1950 collaboration with Canadian Zara Nelsova (1918-2002) in the 1945 Cello Concerto, originally premiered by its inspirator, Russian virtuoso Raya Garbousova. Nelsova’s repute lies with fruitful association with composer Ernest Bloch and her collaborations with husband Grant Johannesen. Nelsova has a richly sonorous cello at hand, and she makes liquid phrases in the first movement, the flutes and pizzicato strings aflutter. The first movement cadenza blazes with color and passionate fury, dissipating among strings and chirping woodwinds. Alternately dark and blithely pastoral, the music manages to haunt us long after the last flourishes of the Allegro moderato pass away. Mournful ruminations mark the central Andante sostenuto, a melancholy nocturne with excellent dialogues with the New Symphony woodwinds and ominous tympani. Agonized and passionate, the last movement calls for “trattenuto,” restrained emotions even in the midst of the pulsating tempos. The tympani delivers subdued tattoos under the intricate interplay between solo and strings. A martial procession engages the lyrical Nelsova and the muted brass choir, from which a poignant melody sweeps us up. Nelsova delivers a series of trills cadenza style that invoke a new set of rhythms and high pedal in the strings. The emotional pitch climaxes with a brief cadenza in swooping gestures that moves to a hasty, nervous coda that has the oboe in staccato. Nelsova appears in epilogue, bewitching in her strident passion, and echoed in the finality of sound that concludes this fine opus.
While we know Medea’s Meditation and Dance, Op. 23A, the seven-movement concert suite from Cave of the Heart (1948) remains less familiar, even though Ormandy premiered it in Philadelphia. American theater audiences of the late 1940s and 1950s recall Judith Anderson and Henry Brandon in the title roles of Media and Jason, and the music captures Medea’s feral unremitting vindictiveness. The recording (12 December 1950) exploits the battery section of the orchestra along with strings and brass, the modalities conducive to pagan lusts. The Parodos sets the agon of the score, the struggle between a proud Medea and her youthful Jason, who wishes to wed a new woman and begin a proper family while consigning Medea to honorable pasture. A Priestess of Hecate, Medea recalls her service to Jason in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, even at the cost having betrayed her native Colchis. The Young Princess–Jason movement asks for piano obbligato and harp, the woodwinds jabbering lightly a la Stravinsky. When Jason proposes marriage, a fatal element intrudes itself to which the parties remain oblivious. Choros inserts a lyrical moment fraught with menace that finds its way into the Meditation, Op. 23A. The longest section, Medea, puts us on notice of her malice, that ruthless demonism that comes to claim, “Not that I loved my [slaughtered] children less, but I hated Jason more.” The final two sections–Kantikos agonias and Exodos–recount Jason’s grisly witness of his fiancée’s destruction by enchanted tiara and cape and Medea’s departure on a chariot drawn by twin dragons. Even Euripides knew Hell hath no fury…
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