Samuel Osborne Barber (1910-1981)
Samuel Osborne Barber II was one of the most frequently performed composers both in the United States and in Europe during the mid-twentieth century. Known for his trademark lyrical style, Barber never abandoned his expressive voice throughout the course of his compositional career. Unlike many of his fellow composers who had to perform or teach to make a living, Barber had the privilege of dedicating nearly all his time to composition. In addition, Barber was unusually fortunate to have virtuoso performers premiere virtually all his works. With over forty published works in his oeuvre (with more than 100 still unpublished, many of which are housed in the Music Division at the Library of Congress), Barber has become one of America's foremost composers.
Barber was born on 9 March 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a suburb nearly thirty miles from Philadelphia. His father, Roy, was a prominent physician and the president of the West Chester School Board. Barber's mother, Marguerite McLeod Beatty (called Daisy), was the sister of Louise Homer, a celebrated contralto with the Metropolitan Opera and wife of composer Sidney Homer. Thus, Barber was gifted with a financially secure background that afforded him the opportunity to study with the best musicians, as well as with a mentor in his Uncle Sidney, who monitored and encouraged the young man's musical career for over three decades.
When he was six years old, Barber began improvising melodies at the piano, and by the time he was seven, he was composing music. In 1919, Barber began studying piano with Hatton Green, once a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna. At age twelve, Barber accepted a position as organist at the First Presbyterian Church; this employment was short lived, however, due to the young Barber's refusal to hold fermatas in hymns and responses. Soon after entering high school, around age fourteen, Barber commuted every Friday to Philadelphia to study music at the newly founded Curtis Institute of Music.
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Symphony No1, op.9 and Piano Concerto, op.38
Hot on the heels of Neeme Jarvi's Chandos version of Samuel Barber's First Symphony comes this rival one of a work which in its time marked a breakthrough in American music, but which has been seriously neglected on disc. The symphony by Mrs Beach may make a more unusual coupling on Chandos, but with his all-Barber coupling Slatkin has an obvious advantage, particularly when on balance his is the more powerful performance of the symphony itself, notably at the very start, where the tautness of attack by the St Louis players immediately commands attention, while Jarvi builds tension more gradually. Generally Slatkin favours Allegros taken slightly faster, but the slow section, Andante tranquillo, is broader, making the overall timing of both versions almost identical. In the lovely oboe melody of that Andante tranquillo the St Louis principal is allowed a more generous espressivo, playing very beautifully, but the simpler folk-like treatment that Jarvi's oboist gives at the more flowing speed is more rarefied in its beauty, a very valid alternative. Though Jarvi's sense of spontaneity gives extra warmth at times, I would finally opt for Slatkin, when ensemble is a degree crisper, and the final section builds to a stronger, more purposeful climax. One incidental advantage is that the RCA disc provides separate tracks for each of the four distinct sections in this one-movement work, where the Chandos has it on a single track.
In any case the coupling will be the decisive point with most collectors, and it is good to have a new recording of the Piano Concerto by the pianist for whom Barber originally wrote this formidable half-hour work, John Browning. He recorded it not long after the first performance, with George Szell and the vintage Cleveland Orchestra (Columbia, 6/65—nla), and that classic account, not yet reissued here on CD, still stands supreme for its passionate thrust and power. At rather broader speeds, with the piano balanced more forwardly, this new version may not be so high-powered, but particularly in the slow movement there is a sensuous quality, a warmth in the lyrical flowering I had not fully appreciated before, whether in the original recording or in Tedd Joselson's version for ASV. Browning's playing of the elaborately decorative figuration is magical.
Those two works alone, lasting together over 50 minutes, might have been counted fair measure for a whole CD, but happily Browning and Slatkin, forming an impromptu duo, had the bright idea of adding the two-piano work, Souvenirs. With its sequence of popular dance pieces, ''Waltz'', ''Schottische'', ''Hesitation Tango'' and so on, Souvenirs is not parody, as Browning points out in the printed conversation supplied as a note, but ''pure nostalgia''. He and Slatkin play the suite like that, with an attractive lightheartedness, even if for such rhythmic music I should have preferred a brighter, less fruity piano tone. That extra was recorded in the Manhattan Center, New York, while the orchestral works were recorded in the St Louis Orchestra's usual venue, the Powell Symphony Hall, with clean, well-balanced results.Buy it from Amazon
Adagio for strings
About this song:
Samuel Barber rejected many arrangements, of Adagio for Strings, published by G. Schirmer, such as the organ arrangement by William Strickland. However he did transcribe the piece in 1967 for eight-part choir, as a setting of the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God").
Adagio for Strings (the string version of this piece) can be heard on many film, TV, and video game soundtracks, including Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning film "Platoon", David Lynch's 1980 Oscar-nominated film "The Elephant Man", Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko", "Swimming Upstream", "Lorenzo's Oil", "A Very Natural Thing", "Reconstruction", and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Oscar-nominated 2001 film "Amélie". It has been heard in episodes of The Simpsons, Big Brother 2010 (UK), That Mitchell and Webb Look, The Boondocks, South Park, How I Met Your Mother, Seinfeld, ER (TV series), Red Dwarf, Big Love, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. A recorded performance by the London Symphony Orchestra was, for a time, the highest selling classical piece on iTunes. This choral version, Agnus Dei, can be heard in the soundtrack to the PC video game Homeworld (released in 1999, awarded with the Game of the Year accolade from the PC Gamer magazine). The work is extremely popular in the electronic dance music genre, notably in trance. Artists who have covered it include Armin van Buuren, William Orbit, Ferry Corsten, and Tiësto. eRa included this song in their new album Classics. Adagio is the final song on the final collaborative Peter, Paul and Mary album "Peter Paul and Mary, With Symphony Orchestra". Mary Travers had requested that Adagio be played at her memorial service. It was also played at the Royal Albert Concert Hall on the 15th September 2001 in memorial of the attacks on America that shook the world four days beforehand.