Barber Orchestral Works
Isaac Stern’s 1964 recording of the Barber Violin Concerto with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic stands as a centrepiece for both these valuable mid-price reissues. Though there were two earlier versions on small American labels – Louis Kaufman on Musical Masterworks Society and H. Girdach on Regent – this was the recording which belatedly gave this warmly expressive masterpiece the international currency it plainly deserved. It was written at very much the same period, just as the Second World War was beginning, as two British works with which it has clear links, the violin concertos of both Walton and Britten, both also dating from 1939.
The superb performance from Stern and Bernstein certainly makes up for the delay, for it can stand comparison with any version since, easily fluent in the two lyrical movements, demoniacally intense in the moto perpetuo finale. That movement, initially disappointing as a resolution to the first two, may not match the finales of the Walton and Britten in weight, but it certainly makes a powerful conclusion here. The only reservation is that with close-up CBS sound for the soloist you rarely get a true pianissimo.
Even more welcome, when it has long been unavailable, is John Browning’s premiere recording of the Piano Concerto. When his much more recent RCA version with Leonard Slatkin appeared, I went back to the original LP, and my comparisons this time have confirmed what was readily apparent then, that with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on searing form in 1964, this is an interpretation of the highest voltage, the more daring and bitingly intense for having been recorded after a long series of performances on tour, full of bravura, with recorded sound rather fuller and more clean than that of the Violin Concerto. The surprise is that though both these CBS recordings were made in 1964, within three months of each other, they were not designed as a coupling, partly, I imagine, a question of Szell and the Cleveland in those days recording for CBS’s semi-autonomous Epic division. Ormandy’s resonant recording of the Adagio, taken at a flowing speed, and Schippers’s dazzling, tautly controlled accounts of the Essay No. 2 and the Overture, also well transferred, make this an ideal disc for anyone wanting to investigate Barber at his finest.
The transfer of the Barber Violin Concerto in the Bernstein Century series is a shade more forward than the Theta one, with Bernstein’s view of the Adagio for strings much more expansive and heavily underlined than Ormandy’s, but with string tone again extremely beautiful. The two William Schuman works are both elegiac, darkly intense in his baldest style. Scored for oboe, brass, timpani, piano and strings, To thee Old Cause was written in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. With its block chords and measured build-up it has something of the rugged strength of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. In Praise of Shahn, dating from the following year, is a response to the painting of Ben Shahn who had just died, similarly dark and brutal with aggressive brass, until the second movement brings an energetic conclusion, where Schuman with jabbing syncopations unleashes all the violence that he has kept in check till then – a powerful resolution. Bernstein in both works is the ideal interpreter, always at his most inspired with elegiac themes.'