Marin Alsop and the Royal National Scottish Orchestra appear to be continuing their complete traversal of Samuel Barber's orchestral works with the fourth volume of the set. There have been some quibbles about tempi in the earlier volumes, particularly of the School for Scandal overture, but there is no such problem here.
The centerpiece of this CD is the Piano Concerto. This concerto was written for John Browning and he has played it literally hundreds of times over the past four decades; he has recorded it several times. I listened to his most recent recording with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony in order to compare it with the present recording, and I have to say that Stephen Prutsman, the pianist on this disc, has nothing to apologize for. Whereas Browning's treatment seems a bit more settled, a bit more sedate, Prutsman's playing is more brilliant, somewhat more percussive, and equally satisfying. The piano is recorded rather more forward on this Naxos disc. I would have to give Browning the edge in the poetic second movement, but in the more vigorous sections Prutsman seems more energized.
The Die Natali is a Christmas piece, written at about the same time as the Piano Concerto. It treats such familiar Christmas carols as O come, O come, Emmanuel; Lo, how a rose e'er blooming; God rest ye merry, Gentlemen; We three kings; Good King Wenceslas. There is even a section where O come, O come, Emmanuel is played over an ostinato taken from Adeste fideles. The biggest climax is based on Joy to the world, and then Silent Night closes the piece quietly. Do not mistakenly believe that this is simply a medley of Christmas tunes--far from it; it is an extremely skillful piece that utilizes all manner of contrapuntal and harmonic devices to create a satisfying symphonic whole.
Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance had a classic recording by Leonard Bernstein and this performance does not compete very well with it, but it must be said that no one has ever come close to Bernstein's incandescent reading. This performance is certainly more than adequate.
The collection ends with Barber's delightful Commando March, originally written for military band in 1943, and later orchestrated; this is the version we hear. It is all one could ask of a stirring military march.
The performances here are quite good. The sound is also very clear and lifelike, although in the Concerto the piano, as mentioned, seems a bit spotlighted, which may not be all bad.
Recommended to those who do not have these particular pieces in their collections or who want several versions of, say, the Concerto or the Medea.