New World Records, a specialized and enterprising company devoted to making American music available to Americans, has come up with two of the year's most interesting records. The first is an operatic tribute to a lifelong friendship between two composers. The second is a piano concerto that evokes two of the most respected family names in classical recordings -- with less familiar first names.
The opera is Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra," a critical fiasco when it premiered for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. Its failure darkened the final years of Barber's life and may have kept him from attempting further large projects. It became an uneven but workable addition to the contemporary repertoire when Gian Carlo Menotti revived it for the 1983 Spoleto Festival in a version that focuses less on pomp and circumstance, more on one of the world's great love stories. Menotti's production, clearly a labor of love, is preserved on NW 322-324 (three LPs with libretto); it is the first recording of this work and the most persuasive presentation it is likely to have in this century.
Barber may have given himself too hard an assignment when he decided to use Shakespeare's own words for his opera; even condensed and simplified, the text of "Antony and Cleopatra" is problematic. It generates its own verbal music, which may not be compatible with a composer's melodies and chords; it is sometimes too fast-moving and complex for easy operatic treatment, and the vocabulary occasionally puzzles an audience when spoken, let alone sung.
But more than one great opera (from "The Marriage of Figaro" to "Madame Butterfly") has had an unsuccessful first production. Even with its problems "Antony and Cleopatra" undoubtedly has more fine music than some works comfortably lodged in the standard repertoire. Its availability on record is undoubtedly the best thing that has happened to this work. Now it can find an audience and build a reputation that may eventually overcome the disastrous effects of its debut.
The revision omits some good music but streamlines the opera and is, on the whole, a net gain. A lot of the effect depends on the singing in the title roles, and these are well-filled by two rising young singers, soprano Esther Hinds and bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells. Christian Badea conducts impressively. The recording is taken from live performances, including some applause, but with four performances to mix and match, plus a couple of studio sessions, New World Records has managed to bypass the usual sonic and musical hazards of live recording.
The names of Lieberson and Serkin are household words in households where classical records are treasured; they were linked on some of the finest recordings in the catalogue when the late Goddard Lieberson was the president of Columbia Masterworks and pianist Rudolf Serkin was one of his outstanding performers. Now, on NW 325, New World preserves a second-generation linking of the names, with Peter Serkin performing as soloist in the Piano Concerto of Peter Lieberson.
Peter Lieberson is following a path left by his father, who gave up a promising career as a composer and became one of history's most imaginative and successful recording entrepreneurs. The younger Serkin, perhaps not yet ready to match his father playing classical Viennese repertoire on a Steinway, has brought fresh skills to other music and has given some fascinating performances of Beethoven and Schubert on pianos dating from the early 19th century. Their collaboration in this recording (with Seiji Ozawa leading the Boston Symphony in a first-class performance) is a noteworthy event.
The Concerto's three movements, according to the composer's description, embody a Buddhist vision of heaven, earth and man -- but no interest in Eastern religion is necessary to enjoy the music, which is colorful, emotionally powerful and artfully constructed in an essentially neo-romantic idiom. It is another solid step in the return of traditional values to contemporary music and deserves a cordial reception by those who welcome this development.