Various Artists

The Music of America: Samuel Barber

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For a number of reasons, Sony's three-disc release of music by Samuel Barber in honor of his centenary year makes a terrific introduction for listeners new to his work and has a lot to offer to his devoted fans. To begin with, the selection of pieces (which are presented mostly in order of composition) is about as close to ideal as possible; it offers a representative sampling of his most important works that's well-balanced in its range of genres and in spanning his career. Devotees may quibble over the omission of a favorite piece, the 1962 Piano Concerto being the most obvious, but it would be hard to argue that there is anything included here that is not central to the Barber canon. Another virtue of the set is the use of historical recordings, the earliest being the song "Dover Beach," featuring the young composer as baritone soloist, from 1935. Other significant historical performances include the first recording of the 1949 Piano Sonata with Vladimir Horowitz, who premiered the work, and a recording of the first performance of Hermit Songs, featuring Leontyne Price with Barber as accompanist, made at the Library of Congress in 1953. All of the performances are of a very high quality, and while they may not necessarily be the definitive accounts of a piece (Price's 1954 studio recording of Hermit Songs is more polished and assured, for instance), they are never less than outstanding. The recordings from the 1960s with Thomas Schippers, one of Barber's most insightful interpreters, include Overture to The School of Scandal, the Second Essay for Orchestra, Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and two scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, the last two with Price as soloist. Among later performances that stand out are the String Quartet, featuring the Tokyo String Quartet, and Sure on this shining night with Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz. Not inappropriately, the set includes three versions of Adagio for Strings, the original for string quartet, the familiar orchestral version, and Barber's 1967 choral arrangement, Agnus Dei. The sound varies considerably, given the fact that the recordings were made over a period of almost 60 years, and in a variety of live and studio settings, but it is always at least acceptable and in fact adds to the collection's interest as a document of Barber's long and remarkable career.

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