BARBER:  Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 (a).  The School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5 (a).  Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (a,b). Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12 (a).  Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17 (a).  Medea's Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a (a).  Cello Sonata, Op. 6 (c). Canzone for flute & piano, Op. 38a (d).  Excursions, Op. 20 (e).  Nocturne (Homage to John Field), Op. 33 (e).  Summer Music, Op. 31.  Souvenirs (arr. from Op. 28) (e).  Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47 (a).
(a) Saint Louis Symphony Orch/Leonard Slatkin, cond. (b) Elmar Oliveira, violin.  (c) Alan Stepansky, cello; Israela Margalit, piano. (d) Jeanne Baxtresser, flute; Israela Margalit, piano.  (e) Israela Margalit, piano.  (f) Jeanne Baxtresser, flute; Joseph Robinson, oboe; Stanley Drucker, clarinet; Judith Le Clair, bassoon; Philip Myers, French horn 

EMI CLASSICS 74287 (2 CDs) (DDD) TT:  75:44 & 72:44


The orchestral contents of this “twofer” from EMI Classics are familiar, except for Elmar Oliveira’s performance of the Violin Concerto, and a nobly beautiful one it is. I’d saved (but not recently heard) the other music on an Angel CD, long since withdrawn and jealously guarded. The pleasure of rediscovering these Slatkin readings (made in 1986, during his most vibrant period in Saint Louis) is diluted solely by a second disc with too much undistinguished pianism by Israela Margalit, once upon a time Mrs. Lorin Maazel and featured on a couple of those unspeakably gimmicky Phase-4 recordings from London/Decca in the ‘60s. Her solo contributions here are collectively too brisk, brusque and tonally hard-sounding. Cellist Alan Stephansky manages to tame her muscular bent in a very well played performance of the Cello Sonata (Barber’s love music for Gian-Carlo Menotti in the early days of their longtime relationship). But there isn’t much competition left in Schwann/Opus, and the work really does need The Yo-Yo or János Starker to organize its structure and restore Barber’s youthful ardor.

One could of course discard the Margalit disc except that it contains a pair of genuine prizes. One is the 1978 Third Essay for Orchestra (from the 1986 CD), the last but one of Barber’s orchestral works, as finely performed by Slatkin and his Golden Arch ensemble of yore as any ever recorded. The other is Summer Music from 1953, six movements for wind quintet which here includes oboist Joseph Robinson, clarinetist Stanley Drucker, and hornist Philip Myers of the New York Phil, beguilingly recorded in 1994 at Purchase, NY.

As for the two earlier Essays and Medea’s cha-cha-cha -- even for the shopworn Adagio for Strings, may Oliver Stone be damned to hear it 24/7 for eternity -- the playing is strong, shapely, eloquent and welcomely unsentimental. Ditto the Violin Concerto, which I’ve listened to often enough by Gil Shaham on a DG coupling with the Korngold Concerto (conducted by André Previn) that I’d forgotten Barber isn’t related to Korngold. Just schmaltzed up, instead, by Shaham and Previn -- class-act schmaltz, but stylistically alien. Oliveira comes to the rescue more nobly than I can recall him playing anything since.

The transfer of original recordings in Powell Hall by Johana Nickrenz and Marc Aubort leaves their virtues intact. Certainly there is enough of excellence in this “Double Forte” package that midpricing makes it worth of serious consideration, in spite of Margalit’s keyboard dross.