Hearing Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin sing Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is almost like hearing it for the first time. She and Marin Alsop, leading the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, manage to wipe the cobwebs off an exquisite piece that's in danger of being perceived as a warhorse, given the frequency with which it's programmed and the number of undistinguished performances it receives. Gauvin sings with absolutely pure tone and unmannered simplicity. She tends to slightly drop the ends of her phrases so that her delivery sounds conversational and intimate, just right for James Agee's evocative prose poem. Her attention to the details of the text and to their place in the architecture of the whole work is practically miraculous; every word is meaningfully but naturally and unselfconsciously placed. The right sense of timing and linking its many sectional shifts is crucial in this delicate score, which passes through a wide range of moods in its brief span, and Alsop seamlessly brings it together. Alsop's tempos tend to be more leisurely than is usual for the piece, especially when compared to the snappy premiere recording with Eleanor Steber and William Strickland, but they feel just right. An altogether revelatory performance.
Barber wrote three Essays for Orchestra, in 1937, 1942, and 1978, and the Second and Third are included here. The Second is the rightfully the best known and most frequently performed, and Alsop leads the orchestra in an impassioned reading of the emotionally mercurial score. The Third, in spite of a gap of 35 years, shows little stylistic change from the Second, but its tone is generally more lyrical and melancholy, with little of the white-hot intensity of its predecessor. Toccata Festiva is essentially a brief concerto for organ and orchestra. Thomas Trotter plays with virtuoso part with ease and panache, but the organ sounds distant and lacks the prominence it should have. The sound in the other three works is clean, warm, and well-balanced.