C1907. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: Symphony #2 in b (Borodin); w.JAMES TOCCO: Piano Concerto, Op.38 (Samuel Barber). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1148, Live Performance, 17-19 Feb, 1983, Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse, NY. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Concertgoers have no trouble recalling the performances that deliver the greatest thrills, which must have been the case with this stunning reading of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto. Captured in studio-quality sound from 1983, it features a powerful, exhilarating performance of the solo part by James Tocco, which I find all the more remarkable because another pianist and a Barber acolyte, John Browning, was so closely identified with the score. Browning premiered the concerto in 1962 as part of the inaugural celebrations of Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center - one might have expected Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic to do the honors, but the premiere fell to Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony - and although recordings were made by other American pianists of note, including Eugene List and Tedd Joselson, Browning’s version on Columbia seemed to be de facto definitive.
It is clear from this new recording that the Barber Piano Concerto has lasting appeal and that Tocco is a close-to-ideal interpreter. Barber had found a secure place with his First Symphony as a conservative modernist, that is, a composer who incorporated 20th-century techniques, such as the percussive quasi-Prokofiev style in the concerto’s outer movements, while not offending the ear with too much dissonance and nothing remotely as confrontational as atonality. Audiences adored his melodic gift, which dominates the concerto’s middle-movement Canzone, where the piano elaborates on the ravishing theme announced by the solo flute while preserving some Modernist angularity. The finale contrasts a pounding ostinato beat with the off-killer phrases that derive from being in 5/8 time.
It has taken decades for a piece so contra-Schönberg to come back into the light, largely thanks to the redemption of tonality and the neo-Romantic movement that Barber belonged to. Seen for what it is, the Barber Piano Concerto sounds newly minted here, and the only listeners who might consider it dated are older than the music. Tocco plays with dazzling clarity, force, and precision, elevating the piano part fully to the level of, say, a Prokofiev piano concerto. Tocco, who was born in Detroit in 1943 of Sicilian parents (he was the youngest of 13 children), has shown his dedication to American music by recording the piano works of MacDowell, Griffes, Copland, and Bernstein. This ecstatic performance adds to his laurels.
But just as thrilling is the orchestral accompaniment conducted by Christopher Keene, which fuses perfectly with Tocco. Anyone who has kept up with St. Laurent Studio’s gratifying series of live recordings under Keene (1946–1995) knows that he never deserved to be half-forgotten. I began listening to this series remembering Keene as a tragic victim of the AIDS epidemic and a variable conductor chiefly identified with New York City Opera. But now it is clear that he probably reached his height as an artist during his tenure with the Syracuse Symphony in the decade from 1975 to 1984.
The same concert that featured the Barber also brings us Borodin’s Second Symphony, a staple of the Russian repertoire that seems to have faded over the years. For a time the same fade-out happened to the Grieg Piano Concerto and Franck’s Symphony in d, but I’m not sure the Borodin has bounced back the way those works have. According to their online performance histories, the Boston Symphony last performed it in Symphony Hall in 1972 (there was an outdoor Esplanade performance in 1990), which the New York Philharmonic improves upon with performances in 1999 and 2019.
The Borodin Second is full of melody if somewhat short on development, but this drawback never curbed Tchaikovsky’s popularity. If you love the Polovtsian Dances (or KISMET, the Broadway musical derived from them), it’s s short step to Borodin’s symphonic works. Keene and the Syracuse Symphony do not dampen the fire that was lighted under the Barber concerto, delivering an ardent reading that merges passion and momentum. They find as much interest in the score as any version on disc, including the one under the young Carlos Kleiber broadcast from Stuttgart in 1972. The Keene version is better played, captured in much better sound, and unfolds with equal excitement. It could easily be anyone’s first choice.
These two supercharged performances comprise Vol. 13 in St. Laurent’s Keene Edition, and although there are many places to start if you are new to the series, here is one of the best. Strongly recommended.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE