Notes and Editorial Reviews
Samuel 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.
Barber’s 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.
The 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.
The 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.
There’s 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 century.
-- Bob Briggs, MusicWeb International
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