BARBER:  Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.  Die Natali, Op. 37.  Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 29A.  Commando March.
Stephen Prutsman, pianist; Royal Scottish National Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.
NAXOS 8.559133 (B) (DDD) TT:  60:32
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With this release, Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish Orchestra have recorded Barber’s four concertos for solo instruments, although the Capricorn Concerto is yet to come – a 20th-century concerto grosso for flute, oboe, trumpet and strings. The piano concerto, begun in 1960 but not completed until 1962, is both his most extroverted and technically daunting work for soloist and orchestra, despite a contemplative slow movement (Canzone: Moderato) originally composed in 1959 as an Elegy for flute and piano. Erich Leinsdorf conducted the work’s Boston Symphony premiere in September 1962 with the pianist for whom it was written, John Browning. A 1963 Pulitzer Prize followed, and in 1964 the New York Music Critics Circle award. It was Barber’s last major work before the debacle in 1966 of his opera Antony and Cleopatra, which opened the new Met at Lincoln Center – a failure he never completely recovered from during the remaining years of his life (1910-81).

Browning recorded it twice: first for CBS/Sony with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, following a triumphant European tour in 1965 (including several weeks in the Soviet Union); then again in 1990 for RCA with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Orchestra – still the benchmark performance on a CD that included Symphony No. 1 and the original two-piano setting of Souvenirs. There was an overreaching version in 1978 by Abbott Ruskin and the M.I.T. Orchestra still to be found in a VoxBox. But if Browning remains the master, Todd Joselson came near in a virtuoso performance on British ASV with the late Andrew Schenck leading the London Symphony. Jon Kimura Parker added a version on Telarc in 1996 with Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony, more vividly recorded than played.

Now Stephen Prutsman enters the arena with a muscular, technically bold, musically vivid reading as fascinating as Browning’s, despite the distance that separates them stylistically. Ms. Alsop keeps up, but her orchestra doesn’t match either Saint Louis or Cleveland, and producer Andrew Walton has moved the piano up-front. Prutsman is faster than Browning by 2:34 in the first two movements, and just two seconds slower in the finale – altogether a distinguished achievement, even if one could have wished for a more temperamentally companionable conductor.

Otherwise, Alsop leads the lovely but unfairly neglected Die Natali of 1960 (which interweaves Christmas carols) expressively a little reticently, with what sounds like a reduced orchestra (the only other recording I know was a Louisville performance under Jorge Mester). Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance ends up going very fast after a laid-back opening – the fourth, fifth and seventh movements of a concert-piece Barber reworked in 1955 from his 1947 Medea Suite, music originally composed for Martha Graham’s ballet Serpent Heart. Slatkin did it more idiomatically on a Saint Louis recording still available in an EMI “Double fforte” duopack. Commando March is a 1943 generic piece that simply goes through the motions. Originally scored for band, Barber orchestrated it for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony but the music long ago entered a limbo where, I believe, it ought to have remained.

R.D. (January 2003)