Giampaolo Nuti / Daniel Kawka

Barber: Concerto per piano; 3 Essays

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The booklet for this Italian release spends way too much ink apologizing for the fact that Samuel Barber was not Cowell or Cage, but fortunately his music can speak for itself and has consistently attracted European performers. The grouping of the three Essays for Orchestra is an attractive feature here; the pieces are linked by the fact of being accessible, tuneful orchestral works under 15 minutes long, but within the same basic framework they differ in delightful ways. This is what annotator Alfonso Alberti (whose notes are given in Italian, inadequate English, and French) misses: Barber was, in the broadest sense, a conservative, but his music was never derivative, and he drew on and combined a wide variety of 20th century musical traditions. The First Essay for orchestra, from 1941, is a lyrical work very much in the vein of the famed Adagio for strings, and those who like that piece and are in search of more of the same can use this as a starting place. The Second Essay is more impressionistic. The Third Essay, a product of Barber's old age, is a remarkable work that sets one of the composer's trademark melodies in the midst of a sparse percussion background; it's really quite a meditation on life and death, and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI (National Symphony Orchestra of Italian Radio) is to be commended for not only bringing it to the table but giving it a clear, rather chilling performance. The Piano Concerto, Op. 38, from 1962, is also stylistically diverse, with a consistently crowd-pleasing Bartókian finale; pianist Giampaolo Nuti is solid but not inspiring. For the quiet, very well controlled performances of the three essays under conductor Daniel Kawka, however, this release will be well worth the time and money of Barber fans.

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