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ClassicsOnline Home » BARBER: Cello Concerto / Medea Suite / Adagio for Strings
By Jason Serinus
The Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA)
By La voix du Nord
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Orchestral Music Volume 2
The years immediately following the end of World War Two
saw a consolidation of the success that Samuel Barber had encountered in the
concert hall with his Symphony No.1 and Essay for Orchestra (Naxos
8.559024). While the romantic and expressive traits that inform these works
remained at the heart of his idiom, the Cello Concerto and Medea
are marked by an increasingly sophisticated use of the orchestra, as well as a
greater harmonic stringency and emotional variety.
The Cello Concerto was written for Raya Garbousova.
The short score was completed in November 1945, coinciding with Barber's
discharge from the air force, with orchestration taking until December. The
premiere, by Garbousova, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Sergey Koussevitzky,
took place on 5. April, 1946. Despite initial success, and the receipt of the
Fifth Annual Award of the Music Critics Circle of New York, the concerto has
established itself only at the margins of the repertoire. Barber revised the score
prior to his recording with Zara Nelsova in 1950, and made minor changes
The opening movement, Allegro moderato, begins with
an abrupt gesture on strings. An understated melodic complex, rather than a
theme as such, now unfolds across the orchestra and the soloist joins in almost
matter of factly. Only belatedly is the theme stated as a coherent entity. A
slower version of the theme becomes a musing soliloquy for the soloist, but the
central development quickly emerges as an incisive orchestral tutti. The
soloist responds with brusque pizzicati, and a resumption of the initial mood, broadening
as before into the theme's more expressive version. The scene is set for a
lengthy cadenza, subjecting the theme's constituent elements to the full panoply
of cello techniques. The orchestra re-emerges, growing restive in its response,
and leading to an agitated coda.
The central movement, Andante sostenuto, opens with
a plaintive siciliana melody on the oboe, subtly derived from that of the first
movement and intertwined with the soloist's barcarolle-like motion. A harmonic shift
reminiscent of Vaughan Williams brings a more expressively-wrought
continuation, before the initial tonality and melody are restored. The
orchestra effects a brief but poignant climax, from where the movement sinks
into ominous reverie.
The finale, Molto allegro e appassionato, opens with
another abrupt tutti gesture, before the soloist leads the way with a vaunting
melody, inviting vigorous repartee with the orchestra. An inward second theme involves
eloquent passage-work for the soloist, building up dramatically in the
orchestra. A short solo passage leads to an atmospheric episode, lightly scored
in the orchestra's upper reaches and featuring cello harmonics. The initial
momentum is now restored, before the second theme returns in sombre hues to
effect the work's expressive climax. A further brief cadenza, follows, after
which soloist and orchestra steer the movement towards its fateful conclusion.
The ballet Medea has a complex history. Commissioned
by Martha Graham for the Second Annual Festival of Contemporary Music in May
1946, Barber began work to a scenario entitled Cave of the Heart. The
first version, completed in April and scored for thirteen instruments, was
first performed at Columbia University on 10th May, under the title Serpent
Heart. The original title was reinstated for the New York premiere on 27th
February, 1947, by which time Barber had reworked the score into a seven- movement
suite for full orchestra, preferring the title Medea, after the principal
character. The suite received its first performance on 5th December, with the Philadelphia
Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. In 1955,
Barber telescoped the suite into one continuous movement,
Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. This was first heard
in New York on 2nd February, 1956, with the New York Philharmonic conducted
by Oimitri Mitropoulos. Yet the additional music and greater emotional range of
the suite merit revival.
Parodos introduces the characters with brazen fanfares
on brass and xylophone. A melodic sequence unfolds in some of Barber's most
tensile orchestration, abounding in subtle harmonic dissonances. Choros I depicts
Medea and Jason, though the cool colouring of solo woodwind and brass, later
upper strings, offsets any overt expression. The music gains in animation, though
the brief climax subsides without inciting a greater emotional response The
Young Princess opens capriciously in solo woodwind and piano. Forceful brass
and strings denote the arrival of Jason, the music trying in vain to regain its
initial charm. Choros II is a ruminative solo for Medea, her
'meditation', a lilting violin figure punctuating the music's rhapsodic course.
Medea is the focal point of the whole ballet. The mood
is sombre and agitated, tension building gradually and ominously as her 'dance
of vengeance' takes shape.
A sudden pick up in tempo finds solo wind in an acerbic exchange
over a syncopated piano ostinato. The music generates increasing rhythmic
aggression, before launching into a tragic climax. Kantikos Agonias follows,
an enigmatic and uneasy interlude, before Exodos erupts in violent
fashion, aptly evoking Medea's crime, the murder of her children. Gaunt brass
and yearning strings provoke a brief climax, enshrining the 'jealousy'
underlying her actions, before the music winds down to an equivocal close:
human actions are no less real for being the stuff of legend.
Few twentieth century pieces have caught the public
imagination more than the Adagio for Strings. Barber's original score
dates from 1936, when it formed the central movement of his String Quartet
in B minor, Op.ll. In 1937, Toscanini heard Barber's Symphony No.1
at the Salzburg Festival and asked the composer to supply a piece for his first
season with the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra. Barber offered the First
Essay and the Adagio, which were both broadcast on NBC radio on 5.
November, 1938. The inward nature of the latter probably helped reinforce its
public significance, with performances at the funerals of such luminaries as
President Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.
The hushed but expressive theme, its modal flavour imparting
an evocative timelessness, unfolds in a series of dynamic terraces; intensity
increasing as the rapt mood is effortlessly sustained. Cellos take up the
theme, and the music reaches an impassioned climax. A heartfelt pause, and the
melody resumes its elegiac course, resolving as if with a benediction.
The extent to which the Adagio overshadowed his other
works understandably caused Barber frustration in later years. Yet it is
difficult to gainsay Aaron Copland's description. 'The sense of continuity, the
steadiness of the flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates from
beginning to end... makes you believe in the sincerity which he obviously put
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