Classical Reissue Reviews
SAMUEL BARBER: The Complete Piano Music = Sonata for Piano, Op. 26; Interlude No. 1; Nocturne, Op. 33; Ballade, Op. 46; Excursions, Op. 20 – John Browning, piano – Nimbus
Published on August 21, 2009
SAMUEL BARBER: The Complete Piano Music = Sonata for Piano, Op. 26; Interlude No. 1; Nocturne, Op. 33; Ballade, Op. 46; Excursions, Op. 20 – John Browning, piano
Nimbus NI 2528, 54:31 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Originally issued in 1993, this disc celebrates the symbiotic relationship that existed between composer Samuel Barber and virtuoso pianist John Browning (1933-2003), who in fact revived Barber’s early Brahms-influenced Interlude No. 1 in E-flat Minor (1932). Noted for his steely, sometimes percussive clarity, Browning invariably became linked to Barber’s keyboard repertory, especially as the Op. 38 Piano Concerto was created for him.
The big work, obviously, remains the 1949 Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor, whose premier by Vladimir Horowitz set a seal on further realizations of the score, so that Browning, too, insists on a bold hard patina, resonant and somewhat at odds with its innately romantic chromatics. The upper registers of the Scherzo: Allegro vivace e leggero, as indicated, plays as a light-handed toccata in kaleidoscopic perpetual motion. The Adagio takes a page from Liszt and the serialists, offering a funereal theme that embraces all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The languid, drooping ostinato suddenly plunges down into gloomy depths, the melodic shape perilously close to the slow movement from the Shostakovich Fifth. The four-part Fuga: Allegro con spirito that concludes the work provides a brilliant scintillating vehicle for Browning, voluptuously accomplishing for Barber what the same bravura procedure does for the Brahms Handel Variations.
The Interlude No. 1 is a poignant Adagio which exploits big stretches in both hands, a rocking rhythm, chordal doublings, and a sonority close to Brahms, yes, but no less to some Debussy preludes. Browning’s inscription marks the world premier performance. Browning first encountered the Nocturne in 1959 and premiered it. Although labeled “homage to John Field,” the piece ripples with Chopin conventions–arpeggios and chromatic figures that delicately rise and trill–the middle section stratified and quite intense. Some moments hint strongly at Scriabin, especially in terms of tiny melodic “afterthoughts.” Barber’s final, completed piano composition is the Op. 46 Ballade (1977), written for the Cliburn Competition. Chromatically askew in the manner of Scriabin’s descending, parallel triads or introspective Rachmaninov, the piece is in extended song form whose middle section has toccata ambitions.
The Four Excursions (1942-1944) mark a departure for Barber into the realm of home-spun Americana, particularly blues and folk elements. A five-part boogie-woogie rondo opens the set, exploiting the third, fifth, and seventh degrees of the C Minor triad, repeating E-flat and altering the twelve-bar pattern to make something of Barber’s own jazz device. Four twelve-measure sections make up the “In slow blues tempo” excursion, in an uneasy G Major, though the key signature is in C. Browning plays this movement with graded harmonic subtlety, a quietly restive poise. The Allegretto certainly proceeds as a theme and variations, maybe on a personalized version of “Streets of Laredo” in D-flat. Browning makes the music appealing, sometimes in spite of the seven-against-eight metrics. Barber takes on Copland for the final excursion, Allegro molto, an F Major hoe-down or rustic barn dance in bright ringing colors. Fiddler and harmonica move jauntily, throwing out B-flats and G-sharps, just to keep us interested. Colorful, the music attests to Barber’s absorption of a rich tapestry of American musical idioms, brilliantly synthesized under one roof.