Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 2; Adagio for Strings; George Frederick Bristow: Symphony in F sharp minor

Neeme Järvi

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Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 2; Adagio for Strings; George Frederick Bristow: Symphony in F sharp minor Review

by Uncle Dave Lewis

This release from the English Chandos label, Barber: Symphony No. 2/Adagio for Strings combines Samuel Barber's neglected, and at one point withdrawn, Symphony No. 2 with an equally neglected American nineteenth century symphony written by a composer not even on the fringes of the middleweight repertoire radar screen, George Frederick Bristow. The combination of these two disparate figures is both imaginative and in some ways mutually beneficial; Barber, the Romantic, trying to take baby steps into a modern idiom not wholly comfortable to him, and Bristow, the classicist, trying to come to grips with the extended forms of his age.

Barber's second symphony is still relatively unknown to the public at large, having lost so much ground in the two decades when it was out of circulation. This recording by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is easily the best this poor symphony has ever had. Järvi makes the case that this once "lost" work is not only good, but great music; an American World War II symphony easily worthy of standing alongside similar works, such as George Antheil's Symphony No. 4 or Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3. While one might cynically surmise that the purpose her of Barber's famous Adagio for Strings is just to provide a "hit" on this disc, Järvi's reading of the piece is something special; it is treated as a continuous, ascending line from the first note to the big climax, and it is quite effective.

Listening to Bristow's 1858 Symphony in F sharp minor, one begs the question: how original does an American symphony need to be in order to be considered "good?" The conclusion of Bristow's first movement seems a little too quickly arrived at, and the middle section of his scherzo, "The Butterfly's Frolic," seems a tad repetitive; other small flaws may become apparent with careful listening. Yet Bristow's Symphony in F sharp minor is very musical, well made, and imaginative, and it comes from the dark ages of American concert music. This Chandos recording is so good it makes you want to hear Bristow's other four symphonies.

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