EMI is celebrating his birth by releasing this treasure trove of wonderful music. There is something for everybody: Do you want one of the loveliest works for string orchestra? Here’s the famous Adagio – as well as the string quartet from which it comes. How about one of the best violin concertos written in the last century? Do you prefer something with more orchestral zing? Then the Overture to‘The School for Scandal’ will fit the bill.
Barber’s orchestra style was pungent and full of restless energy. The Essay for Orchestra is a good example. The opening is reminiscent of the Adagio. From there the work moves forward nobly and more energetically. What is clear in a work such as this, is the composer’s assuredness, clear musical view and an ability to create well structured and compelling works in a familiar and yet original way. That said, I have heard more exciting performances of this fine work.
This version under Leonard Slatkin is well played, while Barbara Hendricks gives a sympathetic reading of Knoxville. Some of his other lovely song settings are very English in style and effect. This is not a criticism, but interesting nonetheless. Thomas Allen sings them superbly, including the sombre, Dover Beach. Some of the instrumental music, such as the piano sonata makes more demands. Unlike the orchestral music, its qualities require closer inspection. Whereas Excursions, a three-movement piano piece with more regular rhythms is more approachable.
All the conductors and ensembles acquit themselves well. The recordings are excellent.