On the surface, this would seem the ideal recording for the Fourth of July holiday. It contains music of Americas greatest romantic composer, and one of the works is an elegy to the quality of everyday American life. That piece is Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a composition Barber called a "lyric rhapsody" for soprano and small orchestra. It is set to a marvelous text by James Agee, from his nostalgic A Death in the Family. The gentle prose evokes a time past when people sat on their porches on a summer night, talking gently of daily activities. A streetcar breaks the silence, but its sounds fade into the distance, leaving peace and quiet. The soprano intones "Now is the night one blue dew." The soloist then reflects on friends, family, and her childlike relationship to her mother and father, and the larger world outside the family unit.
Barber composed three "Essays" for orchestra, mini tone poems that are almost short symphonies. The second is by far the best. Its opening theme, first played by the flutes, is arresting in its own right and is put through musical hoops that cause it to be even more interesting by the time the work closes in a blaze of grandeur. The Toccata Festiva is a showpiece for organ and orchestra that is never bombastic. Rather, it is romantic and lyrical while still providing the soloist an opportunity for virtuoso display.
This is a disc in Marin Alsops ongoing Barber series for Naxos, and it exhibits the same strengths and weaknesses as the others. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra has a great sound for Barber. Its brass section is especially strong and noble-sounding. And Alsop catches all the lyricism in the writing. But she misses much of the drama and the hard edges that underlie the smooth melodies. Her soloists here are quite good without ever approaching definitive.
The recorded sound is, as with most recordings of this orchestra, appealing but not very commanding. The perspective is distant, something like front-row balcony. The sound does not have enough presence for my taste, and bass is simply "there," without proper focus or edge. Perhaps the problem is Henry Wood Hall, for all Naxos recordings of this orchestra seem lacking in sparkle and pizzazz. It is merely good sound -- not terribly exciting.
If you want an inexpensive disc of all of these works that is in the respectably good range, try it out. If you are looking for ultimate performances of this music, you must go to Leontyne Price and Thomas Schippers for Knoxville (RCA), Thomas Schippers and the New York Philharmonic for the Second Essay (Sony), and Gillian Weir and Raymond Leppard for the Toccata (Linn SACD).
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