BARBER:  Cello Concerto, Op. 22.  Medea Ballet Suite, Op. 29.  Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
Wendy Warner, cellist/Royal Scottish National Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.
NAXOS 8.559088 (B) (DDD) TT:  65:58

If a Koch International CD of the Medea Ballet Suite, conducted by the late Andrew Schenck, is still in the catalog with Essay No. 3 and Fadograph of a Yestern Scene as disc mates (3-7010), it continues to be the one to search for. It will cost you at least twice what Naxos charges for their second installment of "Orchestral Works, Vol. 2," but you'll hear a vibrant performance by an intuitive conductor of Barber's music, vividly recorded in a spacious New Zealand venue. The Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow, home base for Marin Alsop's recordings, does not sound spacious on this CD, despite "24-bit resolution for high definition sound." It is harsh and lacking in depth as recorded by Tony Faulkner. Sonority is diluted thereby (or are there too few strings?) -- a demerit even if Ms. Alsop were better attuned to the composer's idiom. Alertness and efficiency do not make up for the lack.

Medea is a seven-movement suite that started out as a ballet scenario for Martha Graham called Cave of the Heart. Barber composed the original for 13 instruments (the same challenge William Schuman and Aaron Copland faced from the Earth Goddess of Modern American Dance). It was introduced at Columbia University as Serpent Heart in May 1946; but a midtown production in February 1947 with expanded orchestration reverted to Cave of the Heart. From this Barber made the suite he preferred to call Medea, Op. 23. Eight years later he transformed it into a single movement concert piece, re-christened Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a -- which a composer-colleague curtly dismissed as "Medea’s cha-cha-cha" (listen and you'll know what he meant, especially in Marin Alsop's crisp but callow reading).

The Cello Concerto came just before Medea. It was written for Raya Garbusova, a diminutive but voluble Russian I knew later on in Chicago, who introduced it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra a month before the premiere of Cave of the Heart No. l.  It too has structural problems, but surely is a better work than Wendy Warner (the 1990 Rostropovich Prize winner) makes of it here, although a different conductor and more welcoming venue might have enkindled her playing. It doesn't sound like the same piece at least four others have recorded -- Yo-Yo Ma far and away the most persuasively for Sony, with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony. (The only drawback for some purchasers could be the somber coupling:  Britten's Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, a spiritually dark albeit surpassingly powerful work, once you've immersed yourself).

Adagio for Strings gets the best performance here from Alsop and her players -- no tears or bogus theatrics. There may be, however, more versions currently of the Adagio than there are of Beethoven's Fifth, and you're likely to own a couple even if you never listen to them. It is hardly enough to earn "Samuel Barber / Orchestral Works No. 2" an endorsement. Without the Adagio, Naxos had space for some substantial Barber - say Capricorn Concerto, which clocks in just under 15 minutes. Added to the Cello Concerto's 29:27 and Medea's 28:44, there would still have been room to spare.

R.D. (Aug. 2001)