One Movement Symphonies: Barber, Sibelius, Scriabin – Michael Stern – Reference Recordings

by | Jun 8, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BARBER: Symphony in One Movement, Op. 9; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105; SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 4 “The Poem of Ecstasy,” Op. 54 – Kansas City Symphony/ Michael Stern – Reference Recordings RR-149 62:16 (5/28/21) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Recorded 24-25 June 2016, these three compositions reveal in their creators a capacity for symphonic compression of classical forms and lyrical intensity, even a tendency, in Scriabin, for visionary exultation. While the one-movement symphonies of Sibelius and Scriabin have had a generous representation on record, the Barber Symphony No. 1 (1936; rev. 1942) remains a comparative rarity, although some collectors will recall that Bruno Walter departed from his usual German-European tradition to record the work in 1945, his having led the first performance of the revised version in Philadelphia in February 1944. Artur Rodzinski had no less a part in the dissemination of this piece, leading a performance at the Salzburg Festival in 1937, the only such example of an American composition’s being offered.

Portrait of Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

Barber had received a Prix de Rome in 1935; but before any trip to Italy, he sojourned to Camden, Maine with fellow composer and inamorata Gian-Carlo Menotti. There in Maine, Barber began work on what he termed “an orchestra piece of ambitious tendencies.” The initial Allegro non troppo presents three themes which permeate the entire composition in various, color permutations and rhythmic alterations. The Kansas City Symphony brass prove especially resonant in their dark coloration, which we may well assume leans heavily on the influence – also in terms of organic structure – on Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Besides the dissonant and angular aspects of the motives, Barber presents a lovely second theme in the English horn and violas, with a lulling accompaniment in harp and cello lines, and this theme later, given by the oboe, will evolve into a powerful and expressive Andante tranquillo of about seven minutes’ duration. Perhaps looking to Brahms, Barber fashions his final section as a passacaglia based upon the opening motif. The Kansas City Symphony lushly blends the powerful Finale, sustaining the Romantic ethos of the material, weaving all three tunes together and concluding with a jubilant, energetic thrust of youthful confidence.

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The 1924 Seventh Symphony by Jean Sibelius, which serves as a model for Samuel Barber, germinated as “symphonic fantasy” in the composer’s mind, and only later did he deem the work a “symphony” in spite of its single movement. The music seems to develop by accretion of tones and instrumental timbres, driven by its own logic to a majestic trombone theme later on, entering after the string polyphony that resembles a hymn tune, what Serge Koussevitzky characterized as “Sibelius’ Parsifal.” Stern evokes the plastic and transparent opening materials with a chamber music effect, much as James DePreist achieved in a spectacular performance with the Atlanta Symphony years ago. Somehow, the various episodes and scalar rustlings converge into definable aspects of scherzo and slow movement, perhaps what might be termed a “Nordic Rondo” in structure, with its repeated motifs, in a manner not so far from Debussy’s ground-breaking Jeux. The sense of improvisational freedom fused with a volcanic and linear tension remains one of the many miracles in Sibelius, and Stern’s woodwinds, brass, timpani, and strings do this cunning score full justice.

Portrait of Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin

“When you listen to [my] Ecstasy, look straight into the eye of the sun!” admonished Alexandre Scriabin. His 1905 symphonic movement, properly his Symphony No. 4, proceeds as a continuous dream or “poem,” in which the composer’s solipsistic vision of the Self as immanent in all things proceeds to evolve of itself into a holistic sense of erotic Mystery. The opening flute motif with violins initiates the Joy of Creative Activity, almost a musical directive from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” A weird sonata-allegro structure evolves, composed more of leitmotifs and color-clusters than actual melodies. A second theme, Lento, announces the Awakening of the Ego or Soul, that will include the English horn’s declaration of Human Love. A solo trumpet (Julian Kaplan, principal) invokes the ascension of The Will. The subsequent blending of these impulses has elements of Wagner and Franck to resound in rhapsodic climaxes and retreats, ever throbbing and exploding much in the manner of Debussy’s La Mer. Record connoisseurs will recall trumpet Roger Voisin’s contribution to the Monteux recording with the Boston Symphony, and Stern’s realization with Kaplan proves no less fervent and beautifully projected by Recording Engineer Keith Johnson’s patented RR Sound process.

This album easily qualifies as among the “Audiophile Keepers” that demand inclusion in anyone’s collection.

—Gary Lemco

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One Movement Symphonies Stern, Album Cover


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