Barber Adagio:

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Samuel Barber "Adagio" Recordings Print E-mail

Nine minutes, three seconds is the length of what I and many consider the finest recording of the Adagio for Strings. It was recorded by the New York Philharmonic in 1965 with Thomas Schippers conducting. Nine minutes is the preferred rate of most conductors. Some versions are eight minutes and below, some above nine. Bernstein’s Adagio comes in at ten minutes, two seconds. One piano reduction, minus the sustain of the strings, clocks in at six minutes. In the score, Barber indicates, “Playing time: 7–8 min,” which Toscanini achieved (with the 1942 Victor 78) and which gives leeway to the performer. Still, later conductors have felt the piece should go longer than Barber did.

Of the many recordings, three are legendary: the Toscanini-NBC Symphony recording in 1942; the Schippers in 1965; and, at the onset of the compact disc era, the Leonard Slatkin-Saint Louis Symphony 1991 disc, which included Barber’s three Essays for orchestra and two other orchestral works. In their time, these three versions of the Adagio for Strings became best-sellers.

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Here are three great recordings, though I remain partial to the Schippers of 1965 under Barber's supervision:

1) The wholly beautiful and deeply affecting 1976 record by Sir Neville Marriner, collected on this Argo compilation disc.

2) The longer but equally tender Leonard Bernstein/Sony disc, featuring the Adagio and Issac Stern playing the Violin Concerto.

3) James Sedares' version on Koch is also recommended.

Other good versions include those by Marin Alsop with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas with the London Symphony Orchestra.

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The finest recording of Barber's Opus 11, the original 1936 string quartet, with the molto adagio as its middle movement, is the one performed by the Emerson String Quaret.