BARBER:  Violin Concerto, Op. 14.  Souvenirs (Ballet Suite), Op. 28.  Serenade for Strings, Op. 1.  Music for a Scene from Shelley, Op. 7.
James Buswell, violinist; Royal Scottish National Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.

NAXOS 8.559044 (B) (DDD) TT:  64:20


The winner here is James Buswell’s distinguished playing of the lovely concerto that Barber completed in 1940, which has since become the most recorded American violin concerto. Yet its history was plagued by complaints from the Curtis Institute student for whom it was commissioned by his adoptive father, Samuel Fels, the naphtha soap magnate. The first two movements were claimed to be too simple, and the finale too difficult. A pair of fellow Curtis students, with Fritz Reiner conducting, proved the stepson flat-out wrong. Barber refunded half of the fee, but in return asked for full rights. One hopes it made him a lot of money.

A year later Albert Spaulding introduced it publicly with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, although it wasn’t recorded until the LP era (first by Louis Kaufmann on the Orion label, if my decimated library can be trusted). Isaac Stern gave it The Big Push in 1964 with the NYP (still available on Sony as part of “The Bernstein Century”). By Y2K, the late Schwann/Opus listed versions by 10-count’em-10 violinists (Ruggiero Ricci twice, the finer one on Reference Recordings), ranging from Joshua Bell to Walter Verdehr. Of these I’ve kept Elmar Oliveira with Slatkin and the Saint Louis Orchestra, reissued in an EMI double fforte duopack (review), and the plushy one by Gil Shaham with Previn and the London SO (coupled with Korngold on DGG). I wish I’d kept Robert McDuffie on Telarc (available in two different couplings) with the Atlanta Symphony - the first of which included the orchestral version of Souvenirs on this new Barber from Glasgow, and Jan Kimura Parker playing the Piano Concerto. But I have a space problem, and Yoel Levi never was the most enkindling of conductors.

When you add Perlman, Salerno-Sonnenberg, Hilary Hahn and Kyoko Takazawa, you’re in fast company. Naxos’ budget price is a plus for Buswell. Conductor Marin Alsop tends to push him in the finale, while encouraging the Royal Scottish Orchestra to make their ffs aggressive, but the balance is good and the acoustic friendly. Alsop strikes me as less successful in Souvenirs - perhaps it’s that she’s too young to remember the NYC Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court ca. WW1, or even pictures of it. Here, too, she pushes and shoves the quicker parts of this six-part suite, as if somehow to prove herself as muscular as male colleagues. But it’s not music “remembered with affection, not in irony or tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness” that Barber orchestrated in 1952 from an original for four-hands. Alsop’s interpretively at sea - beached, actually - in Music for a Scene from Shelley, inspired by “Prometheus Unbound.” For that you really need Andrew Schenck and the New Zealand SO in a Barber VoxBox that adds Howard Hanson’s Piano Concerto for extra measure. There’s also Serenade for Strings, arranged from a three-movement quartet Barber wrote at age 18. That one Alsop gets right, with very little competition from anyone else on discs.

It’s only fair to say that her Barber series on Naxos has been getting some good reviews, and that you sample for yourself, if you care to and can. Otherwise, Buswell is welcome; it’s been a long time since I first reviewed him as a prodigy billed as James Oliver Buswell IV, which lacked a certain box-office cachet - as indeed, and sadly too, Robert McDuffie does.

R.D. (February 2002)