- Audio CD (May 18 2004)
- SPARS Code: DDD
- Number of Discs: 1
- Label: Nam
- ASIN: B0001N9ZF2
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #58,886 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)
|1. Knoxville: Summer Of 1915, Op.24 - Karina Gauvin|
|2. Second Essay For Orchestra, Op.17|
|3. Third Essay For Orchestra, Op.47|
|4. Toccata Festiva, Op.36 - Thomas Trotter|
Most people who purchase the recording are more than likely purchasing it for the collections best known piece KNOXVILLE: SUMMER OF 1915. The work was commissioned by the soprano Eleanor Steber in the late 1940's, composed by one of the great contemporary composers of the time with words from the poem by James Agee, and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra by the great Serge Koussevitzky. With such a background, could the work be anything but destined for greatness? As other reviewers have noted, the work is a favorite of sopranos such as Steber and Leontyne Price and there are other wonderful recordings of the work. While I agree that sopranos such as Price and Steber have masterfully performed and recorded the work, Karina Gauvin's performance is also worth noting. Perhaps because her voice is not as powerful as many of her predecessors, she is able to give the work a simpler rendition which would be in keeping with Knoxville, Tennessee in the early part of the last century. It is difficult to understand what she is singing at times, but the recording ahs the words in the liner notes, and the diction problems seem to fade with familiarity.
The SECOND ESSAY FOR ORCHESTRA, the THIRD ESSAY FOR ORCHESTRA, and the TOCCATA FESTIVA are lesser known Barber works but demonstrate his tremendous musical gifts. The SECOND ESSAY is a more traditionally composed piece, the THIRD is somewhat experimental. Thomas Trotter does a masterful job conducting the Royal Scottish Orchestra. The TOCCATA FESTIVA is a bold and exciting piece that would require a skilled orchestra and an organ virtuoso, and this recording contains both.
While nearly all Naxos recordings can be characterized by quality and price, this collection deserves a special place in its catalog.
This CD also holds the Second and Third Essay for Orchestra, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra beautifully plays both. The Second Essay was commissioned by Bruno Walter in 1942 and is, like his First Symphony, a compact work with enough musical ideas for a longer work. It is good to see the Third Essay, the least recorded of this form, coupled with the Second. The Third Essay, from 1976, is dominated by the opening theme imaginatively scored for percussion instruments. Like the earlier Essays, the third has an abundance of musical ides and moments of beautiful lyricism with an underlying melancholia. An even rarer work of Barber's in the Toccata Festiva for orchestra and organ, written when Mary Zimbalist, a wealthy patron of music, offered to buy a new pipe organ for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Barber was offered a commission by Eugene Ormandy for the Toccata. The work is a miniature concerto for organ with virtuoso playing required from the soloist. The orchestra has a magnificent accompanying role with music written not as a backdrop for the organ but with beautiful long passages that make it a partner in the performance.
This is a very rewarding disc wonderfully conducted by Marin Alsop, who has become the leading Barber proponent with this 5th disc of his music.
'Knoxville' is a work that never fails to speak to me. It somehow prompts a nostalgia for a past that I did not actually experience but which feels utterly accurate in its evocation of those long-ago days when people sat on their porch swings 'rocking gently and talking gently' that it still, after many years' familiarity, brings a lump to my throat. Of course, James Agee's prose poem about those times is an American classic. I've known this piece ever since the original recording by its dedicatee, the inimitable American soprano Eleanor Steber. Steber had long been a friend of Barber's and later premièred the name role in his great opera 'Vanessa.' Her performance, for me, is without parallel and it is still available on CD. However, Steber's voice is a big one, a dramatic one (as was Leontyne Price's; she made the second recording of the piece) and 'Knoxville' can also be very effective when sung by a soprano with a more lyrical sound. In that category would be the recordings of Sylvia McNair (what a glorious voice she has!) and Dawn Upshaw. Gauvin's voice is more like Upshaw's and although I presume she is a native French speaker (she's from Montréal), her diction is better. Alsop's musical direction is spot on and the RSNO plays beautifully for her. This is definitely a competitive recording of this great piece. [Sidebar: Renée Fleming's performance of 'Knoxville' at the concert a few years ago to dedicate the new Harris Hall at the Aspen Music Festival has achieved legendary status. When is SHE going to record it?]
The Second and Third Essays for Orchestra came after his 1930s favorite, the First Essay. The Second, written at the request of Bruno Walter, was premièred by Walter and the New York Philharmonic in 1942. It is the most dramatic and tightly constructed of the three. It is given an incisive performance here. The Third Essay was a late work, premièred in 1976 by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is less overtly Romantic than the earlier pieces, opening with unaccompanied timpani and xylophone whose asymmetric melodies and rhythms supply motifs for the rest of the work. It is the least played of the three but would be an effective concert opener and is given an effective reading here.
The 'Toccata Festiva' was also premièred by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was commissioned by a Philadelphia heiress to inaugurate a new pipe organ. The writing for the organ is virtuosic, displaying all facets of an organist's technique. The acclaimed English organist, Thomas Trotter, here plays the solo part with élan and the imaginative orchestral accompaniment is expertly managed by the RSNO. This piece is rarely heard for some reason but I well remember one live performance about ten years ago that had me wondering why; perhaps its because of the heavy requirements placed on the organist's hands (and feet - there is one unaccompanied passage for pedals alone that makes one gasp). It's a barn-burner and a sure crowd pleaser that does not pander to vulgar tastes.
This is an worthy continuation of this worthy series. Recommended.