Review By Stephen Murray,Epinions.com,May 2010
The “Capricorn Concerto” of Samuel Barber (1910–1981) is pretty obscure. The rest of the music on the final Naxos disc of Barber orchestral music played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of (the American) Marin Alsop is very obscure, mostly lovely and lyrical, especially the “Canzonetta For Oboe & Strings,” the portion of an oboe concerto Barber did not complete before his death from cancer. It is gentle and soft, but the music is not especially melancholy beyond the intrinsically triste qualities of the oboe. And it’s not that Barber chose the melancholy instrument. Rather he was writing it for Harold Gomberg, a classmate of Barber’s at the Curtis Institute, who was retiring as principal oboe of the New York
On the disc, the Canzonetta” segues (via harp) to the Debussyan melancholy (with prominent, mournful woodwinds, starting with a bassoon) “Fadograph of a Yestern Scene.” The title is a quotation from Finnegan’s Wake, the nearly opaque novel that I’m surprised obsessed not only Barber but also Thornton Wilder, similarly not remembered as wildly experimentalist. “Fadograph” includes some recycling from the first movement of Barber’s (withdrawn/suppressed by the composer) Second Symphony (recorded with the First Symphony on an earlier disc in the Alsop survey). It does not howl, but definitely shivers (string tremolo). “Fadograph” fades away, as did Barber, and as did his “Mutations on Bach” (which lacks an opus number, but was written between #42 and #43 and sounds to me like Purcell funeral brass music) and the intermezzo from the third act of Barber’s Pulitizer Prize-winning opera “Vanessa,” and (not on this disc) his most often played work, the “Adagio for Strings.”
I’ve noted in earlier reviews that endings were not one of Barber’s strengths. Many of his compositions stop or fade away rather than end. The neoclassical (in a very Stravinskian mode) “Capricorn Concerto” does have a conventional if not particularly extended ending.
“Capricorn” was what Barber and his partner (and sometimes librettist) Gian Carlo Menotti called their hilltop home near Mount Kisco, New York” “Capricorn” for getting winter light. There are intimations that the first movement is a self-portrait, the second a portrait of Menotti, and the third (in a guestroom) Robert Horam, with a coda on the terrace. Some of the rhythms and instrumentations are very reminiscent of Stravinsky, though with the general Barber lyricism. (“Lyrical” is not one of the first hundred adjectives anyone is likely to apply to Stravinsky!) The opening of the second movement calls to my mind “Histoire du soldat”—but them wafts dreamily on a clarinet solo.
The third movement has a trumpet fanfare, an homage t