Adagio for Strings
On the programs of American symphony orchestras, the American composer whose music is most frequently encountered is not Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, or George Gershwin, but Samuel Barber (1910-1981). For many years, Barber's Adagio for Strings has been the most frequently performed concert work by an American composer. This intense, elegiac piece was originally the opening part of the second movement of Barber's String Quartet, Op. 11; the composer then scored it for string orchestra at the request of conductor Arturo Toscanini, who gave the first performance of the arrangement in 1938 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The music begins quietly with a feeling of subdued but deep sadness, builds to a searing climax of extreme poignancy, and subsides again into the stark, melancholy mood of its opening.
Though familiar from repeated playings (and from use in Oliver Stone's film Platoon), the Adagio for Strings remains one of the most moving and beautiful elegies ever conceived, an outstanding example of Barber's remarkable lyric gift.
New York Philharmonic/Thomas Schippers.
Sony Classical "Masterworks Heritage" MHK 62837 [with other works by Barber, Menotti, Berg, and D'Indy]
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin.
EMI CDC 49463 [with Overture to The School for Scandal, Essays Nos. 1-3 for Orchestra, and Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance]
The most beautiful recording ever made of the Adagio for Strings is at last on CD, thoughtfully coupled with some of the other recordings the young Thomas Schippers made for Columbia Masterworks-of the music of Barber and others-between 1960 and 1965, at the start of his all-to-brief career. Although he was never on close personal terms with Barber, Schippers had the ability to put Barber's music across in just the right way, with the perfect blend of energy and lyricism, toughness and warmth, and, above all, with the feeling that its sentiment was real, but ineffably contained. The playing of the New York Philharmonic (in the Adagio, as well as in the Second Essay for orchestra, the Overture to The School for Scandal, Andromache's Farewell, and Medea's Dance of Vengeance) is aglow with inspiration, and the sound is exceptionally vivid, with a palpable sense of presence and space.
For the essential orchestral pieces of Barber, EMI's compilation with Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony is the best currently available. Slatkin's reading of the Adagio is beautifully built, exactly on the mark. The Essays-works of magnificent crafstmanship in which Barber unerringly balanced the sorrowful with the triumphant-are powerfully stated, and Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance emerges as an orchestral tour de force. The recordings are full, spacious, superbly atmospheric.