Barber wrote his Piano Concerto for John Browning (1933-2003)
who gave the première at the inaugural celebrations for the Lincoln Center for the Performing
Arts in New York in 1962. The work was awarded the Pulitzer
Prize and has become the most frequently performed American
Piano Concerto – Browning himself gave about 400 performances
of the work. He also recorded it twice – in 1964, with George
Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra for CBS. The first is on
Sony Essential Classics SBK87948,
coupled with the Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern and
the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. He returned
to it in 1991 with Leonard
Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony (for BMG/RCA Red Seal).
This latter brought Browning his first Grammy award. The present
disk, when it appeared on MusicMasters in 1993 earned him
his second for “Best Classical Instrumental Soloist without
Orchestra”. In 1994 Browning partnered Cheryl Studer and Thomas
Hampson in a complete recording of Barber’s complete songs
on Deutsche Grammophon 435 867–2. Thus we can see that if
ever a pianist was immersed in Barber’s piano works Browning
was the man.
piano music covers his whole career and the styles of the
pieces employ almost as many different languages. Take his
masterpiece for the instrument – the Sonata. Commissioned
by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers to commemorate the 25th
anniversary of the League of Composers it is a tersely and
cogently argued work. It employed twelve note technique, but
never loses sight of tonality. It was premièred by Vladimir Horowitz. It’s a tour de force of piano writing and is
a ferociously difficult work both to play and to listen to.
It gives little respite to both performer and listener and
needs repeated hearings to get to grips with its language.
Horowitz recorded the work in 1950 on RCA Victor: 60377-2-RG
coupled with Kabalevsky’s
3rd and Prokofiev’s 7th Sonatas.
This is the touchstone by which all pianists must be measured.
Browning plays this complex work to the manner born. Perhaps
his performance is not as idiomatic as that by Horowitz but,
like van Cliburn, he has his own ideas on how the music should
be interpreted. Although he doesn’t quite make it his own
– Horowitz can rest easy here – he makes a very persuasive
case for the work and this is a superb performance.
next biggest piece is the set of four Excursions – Barber’s first major piano work. They are based on
old American songs and musical vernacular: the first movement
is a kind of boogie–woogie, the second a blues, the third
uses The Streets of Laredo as its melodic idea and
the last is a square dance. Although lighter in texture and
feel they are no less virtuosic than the Sonata. These
are delightful pieces, unpretentious and easy–going and Browning
is totally at home with them, making them sing and bringing
out a little nostalgia as well. Delicious stuff.
late Ballade was written for the Van Cliburn competition.
It’s a hot-house affair which owes more than a little to the
highly flavoured music of Scriabin. The composer packs a lot
into a short playing time. Interlude I is a surprisingly
big piece with big ambitions. Considering its early compositional
date it is surprisingly mature and well wrought. Finally,
the Nocturne, another Browning première of a piece
by Barber. It’s a highly decorated work, full of filigree
work. Browning has said that perhaps it is more of a homage
to Chopin than Field. Certainly there is more of the former
in its keyboard layout than the latter.
little that can be said of this recital except that is essential
listening and the performances are as committed as one could
hope for. Browning’s was a major talent which was heard all
too infrequently outside the USA so we must be grateful for
his recordings. His major competitor is Daniel Pollack (Naxos 8.550992) and he gives all the works here plus the Three Sketches (1923/1924) and an arrangement for
solo piano of the ballet suite Souvenirs. His disk
is worth having for these two extra pieces but it cannot be
considered as a sole choice for this music when this collection
is so good. This is well worth having on the shelf both as a reminder
of a great pianist and as an example of some of the most refined
piano music to come out of America in the 20th