Friday, October 09, 2009

Barber, more than an Adagio

Some classical composers are doomed to be remembered mainly for one composition. In some cases, there is some justification for that when looking at the rest of their repertoire (Albinoni, Pachelbel), but it definitely should not happen to one of America's best, Samuel Barber (1910-1981). His main claim to fame is the Adagio for strings, which you may know from movies such as Platoon, The Elephant Man and Amelie, and from famous funerals such as The ones of Einstein and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Personally, I don't think it is his finest composition, and I actually prefer it in the original version, as centre piece of his string quartet. Far less popular, but in my opinion much more rewarding, are his beautiful violin concerto and his songs. His finest hour is the lush and richly textured Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a work for voice and orchestra composed in 1947. The text is taken from a 1938 short prose piece by James Agee. The short story is a simple, dreamlike depiction of an evening in the American South, narrated by a child who seems, at times, to transform into an adult; both parts are sung by a solo soprano. The version with Dawn Upshaw will always have a special place in my heart, but Naxos have released a version which is almost as beautiful by Karina Gauvin. Two of the other works on this album are essential Barber as well: his second and third Essay for orchestra (1942/1978), condensed pieces of 10-15 minutes that show off his brilliance in instrumentation. The final composition is a rarity, but a treat: the virtuoso Toccata for organ (played by Thomas Trotter) and orchestra from 1960. Excellent play in all pieces by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under female conductor Marin Alsop. An essential disc.