Notes from the underground

As you have seen from the columns I have written to date, Western music in the 20th Century has come in many different styles. In the first half of the century and into the second, there was a consistent progression towards a more “modern” style, breaking as many conventions as possible in an effort to evolve Western music. There is a stereotype which has developed of what modern music is supposed to sound like; I am sure you all have the familiar, cliched sound-image in your mind– music that has no melody, uses strange sounds in various instruments, and seems to be a general cacophony of noise.

I won’t dispute that cliche, but I will say that there is more to most 20th Century music than that. (Note that I say “most”.) The academics who wrote the music which developed that cliche created a strong current in the middle of this century, and those composers who dared to move against it were ostracized from the community. Recently, with the neo-Romanticism that is so prevalent in modern compositions, it has become possible to recognize those composers for what they were: not necessarily revolutionaries, but excellent musicians.

The best of the mid-century American composers of that genre was Samuel Barber, who used harmonies and melodies long after they were out of fashion. He never achieved the fame of Copland or Bernstein, in part because he was not trying to capture the American spirit in the same way as they were. Rather, he was looking for what was beautiful in life, and he often found it.

Three pieces are represented on a CD of Barber’s music conducted and performed by Leonard Slatkin and John Browning (CD B24 12): his First Symphony, his Piano Concerto, and his Souvenirs for two pianos. These works provide an excellent “sampler” of three aspects of Barber’s musical personality.

The First Symphony, written in 1937, is full of lush orchestration and unbridled optimism. Ostensibly in one movement, the work is actually in four, played without breaks. The Symphony as a whole functions as a “synthesis of the symphonic form”, in the words of Leonard Slatkin. One might hear Copland in the notes, but the most apt reference seems to be to film music of our own time. Stirring as this music may be, it is difficult to take it entirely seriously in this day and age.

Nevertheless, Barber creates some wonderful music in this minature Symphony, and it is a fine representative of the same early period that spawned the more-famous Violin Concerto and Adagio for Strings.

The second work on the disc, the Piano Concerto, is far and away my favorite work of Barber’s. While still a very romantic concerto, it is more chromatic and less “comfortable” than most of his other works. For the first movement, Barber uses very little material, rather choosing to fully develop the themes which are presented in the opening piano solo. The build-up to the cadenza and the cadenza itself are staggering, with as much passion as in any concerto that I have heard. The second movement is a beautiful “Canzone” which, again, repeats itself quite often. Barber is a meticulous craftsman, however, and does not bore us. The final movement is in 5/8, an offsetting rhythm, and is full of rampant energy.

John Browning performs the solo part quite adequately, though he takes a far slower tempo throughout than he did for his landmark premiere recording in 1963. Perhaps his fingers do not work as fast anymore, but I am a bit spoiled by the previous recording. Nevertheless, this is a fine recording, better than some others that I have heard, and certainly worth your time.

“Souvenirs”, the final work on this CD, is a suite of parlor pieces for two pianos that recalls the 19th Century. I found myself laughing through a few of them, and yet I was touched by the recollection of a more innocent era, perhaps one in which Barber’s gifts would have been more fully recognized.