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CD Review

Samuel Barber

Piano Music

  • Sonata for Piano, Op. 26
  • Interlude #1
  • Nocturne, Op. 33
  • Ballade, Op. 46
  • Excursions, Op. 20
John Browning, piano
MusicMasters Classics 01612-67122-2
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  • Interlude #1
  • Interlude #2
  • Sonata for Piano, Op. 26
  • Fresh from West Chester (Some Jazzings)
  • Excursions, Op. 20
  • After the Concert
  • Nocturne, Op. 33
  • Three Sketches
  • Ballade, Op. 46
Lilia Boyadjieva, piano
Solstice SOCD 145
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John Browning's disc claims to be Samuel Barber's complete piano music, and, in a way, that's true. It certainly contains all of Barber's published music for solo piano. Barber, however, wrote far more than he ever gave to publishers. Much of his stepchildren occur early in his apprenticeship and career, but he continued to withhold work even after he became established, with many prestigious commissions behind him – in fact, until as late as 1973 (he died in 1981). Some of the work was slight or occasional in intent, but some was not, including a movement to a second string quartet and a violin sonata, which actually won him his first major prize. Barber criticized himself with a fury in a class with Brahms' and actually tried to destroy all available copies of his second symphony. Fortunately, he didn't succeed. As far as the unpublished piano music goes, he probably shouldn't have published some of it, and shouldn't have hidden the rest.

If we consider how little Barber allowed published, the variety of idiom in that work falls little short of astonishing. People talk of a Barber idiom, but they usually mean about three works of the early and middle 1930s – the First Essay, the Adagio for strings, and the violin concerto. Even the rest of the string quartet seems out of the magic circle. Furthermore, Barber composed for another thirty years, and I can find little stylistic repetition in his catalogue. The facts of his career, recited in this way, indicate a questing musical mind, one associated more often with experimenters like Cowell and Varèse. Perhaps Barber's superb technical equipment smoothed away the roughness of his experiments. Everything seems so assured.

John Browning, of course, has decades-long acquaintance with Barber's work. In the 1960s, he almost seemed like Barber's "house pianist." The composer wrote his magnificent piano concerto for Browning. On the other hand, of the major American composers, Barber wrote music that accepted rather than proclaimed its nationality. One can almost always find a link – at least in attitudes about what music should be doing and how music sings – to the great nineteenth-century Romantics, particularly Brahms and Chopin. Therefore, one cannot help but wonder what a European pianist, steeped in that repertoire, would make of Barber's piano music.

I consider the Interlude #1 the major unpublished work on both discs. Some commentators with good reason see the influence of Brahms, but to me it more strongly looks forward than back, prefiguring the First Essay, with similar harmonies, rhythmic patterns, and an arpeggio idea in octaves that calls up the solo brass passages in the Essay. The work reveals as well as anything on the disc the difference in the two pianists' approach. I notice immediately Browning's more sharply-delineated, steadier rhythm and greater contrast in the varieties of his touch. On the other hand, Boyadjieva concerns herself with drawing out the line of melody as far as she can. She risks (and occasionally loses) the continuity of the piece, where the line simply stops moving forward and becomes isolated notes. Browning risks (and occasionally loses out to) choppiness by not allowing major architectural sections to develop in the listener's mental "ear." As a "norm," I prefer Browning's interpretation, but I admit that Boyadjieva's opening ravished me with a beautifully extended line and just the right amount of "push."

Barber largely gave a miss to the "Americana" movement culminating in the 40s, but succumbed with his Excursions. The title, of course, indicates that this isn't his main business, but a kind of composer's holiday. The first movement derives from boogie-woogie left-hand patterns, the second moans a slow blues. I recall reading that the composer described it as a blues "à la Tobacco Road." The third movement sings sweet variations on "Streets of Laredo," while the finale pours out breakneck fiddle tunes. Nevertheless, although he aims for wit, he often achieves something more, as in the third movement. According to Barber's major biographer, Barbara Heyman, Barber wrote them for his pianist friend Jeanne Behrend, dedicatee of the Interlude #1, as well as for Horowitz, who apparently premièred movements I, II, and IV in Philadelphia (the composer had not yet completed III; nevertheless Schirmer's published them as I, II, and IV). Horowitz also recorded the three pieces (available on RCA 09026-62644-2). Behrend premièred the complete set.

Boyadjieva's reading resembles Horowitz's. Neither has the American musical vernacular down. Although Boyadjieva does emphasize the left hand more than Horowitz does, the first movement sounds more like the Prokofieff of Sarcasms than Pete Johnson's ZeroHour. The blues moves stiffly, without the subtle lilt of someone like Alberta Hunter or Joe Williams. In a letter, Barber reveals that Horowitz had trouble with this movement too. Boyadjieva treats "Streets of Laredo" a bit willfully, like overdone Chopin. You may not even recognize the tune right away. In the finale, she does well, but it still reminds me more of Pétrouchka than "Old Joe Clark." It's all as if you were to hear Yakov Smirnoff doing a Richard Pryor routine.

Browning nails these pieces more than any other pianist I've heard, despite a restrained left hand in the first (I prefer Boyadjieva here), but then he has the inestimable advantage of growing up in a place where he can be assaulted by all sorts of junk. Eventually, the rhythms get inside you. His phrasing in the blues is particularly cogent, and again the variety of his touch and his ability to move seamlessly from one to the other call up the peculiar elegance of the blues. The variety of color particularly impresses in the third movement, as does Browning's ability to handle three different dynamics in simultaneous lines. Serenely beautiful as a swan gliding on a lake. The finale not only sparks, it swings.

Neither pianist really scores over the other in the Nocturne, although the interpretations do differ. According to most critics and Barber's friends, Chopin probably inspired the work, despite Barber's subtitle, "Homage to John Field," Chopin's inspiration. Boyadjieva here has something like home field advantage, but I recall Browning as a superb Chopin player, in particular his recording of the Études for RCA. I supposed, if pressed about the Nocturne, I come down on the side of Boyadjieva, who moves the music along with greater naturalness, fewer of the grimaces that occasionally afflict Chopin playing. Yet the music breathes.

I confess to immunity to the charms of Barber's Nocturne, but the Ballade hooks me with ambiguous harmonies and emotional landscape. An uneasiness simmers in the work, occasionally interrupted by passionate, boiling outbursts that quickly subside. Barber wrote it late in his career (1977) for the Van Cliburn Competition. Although it assumes virtuosity, virtuosity per se is the easy part. Its real difficulty for the pianist lies in getting an interpretive handle. I first heard it in a 1984 recording by American pianist Bennett Lerner. I much prefer both the artists here. For me, Browning edges out Boyadjieva, who takes a too-quick tempo in the quiet sections. Browning's interpretation "worries" more.

Barber's major work for solo piano, as far as I'm concerned, is the Sonata – one of the very greatest American contributions to the genre, along with the Griffes Sonata, the Copland Variations, the Gershwin Préludes, the Ives Second, the Carter Sonata, and Louise Talma's Piano Sonata #1. Barber wrote it for Horowitz who immediately established sovereignty over the work at the première and through the subsequent recording (RCA 60377-2-RG). I re-acquainted myself with the Horowitz interpretation to prepare for this review. The performance electrifies, and it probably belongs to the small gallery of great recordings of the century. Horowitz launched that work, at one time probably in the repertory of every American pianist. Yet, among all the sparks, I was surprised at how lacking in detail Horowitz's reading is. To be fair, the recording dates from 1950, at most two years from the work's composition.

Browning has known the work for decades, having recorded it for the sainted Desto label during, I believe, the 70s. A good performance, it didn't really supersede the Horowitz. Now Browning has had at least twenty-five more years of study and consideration. It shows. Nevertheless Boyadjieva's reading conjures up tempests, especially in the first movement. One habit I don't particularly care for, however, is her frequent slowing down at the top of a phrase's arch. I generally prefer "straight-ahead" playing, but that's me. If you like your Rachmaninoff pushed and pulled like taffy, you might like this. Even so, her first movement at places genuinely moved me. Browning keeps a sharper edge and a steadier rhythmic pulse, but not metronomic. The rubato variation, still noticeable, is much slighter. This may be due to differences in the way Europeans and Americans (North, South, and Latin) perceive rhythm, an observation I've stolen from Aaron Copland, who maintained that Americans seem to view rhythms as the accretion of small units, whereas Europeans tend to look for the long phrase. I have no way of knowing this, of course, but it's an interesting idea and one, if I may say, that might be borne out by examples. Surely the jumping opening to Copland's own El Salón Mexico shows the first, while the rhythmic jiggery-pokery of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta shows the second. For those used to Barber's early lyrical manner, exemplified by the Violin Concerto and the Overture to the School for Scandal, this work may come as a shock. By the late 40s, Barber had expanded his harmonic resources considerably. In the liner notes to the Browning CD, K. Robert Schwarz argues that Barber's greater chromaticism derives from a personal rapprochement to Schoenbergian dodecaphony, but I remain unconvinced. I find greater similarities to the Prokofieff piano sonatas of the 1940s, particularly to the seventh, written in 1942, and also given its U.S. première by Horowitz. The harmonic universes of the two works to me lie closely together, and both share similar rhythmic obsessions.

Browning takes the delicately fleet and nervous second-movement scherzo hands down. Boyadjieva's a tad heavy here, and there's greater contrast in Browning's shaping of the movement.

Boyadjieva's approach works best in the elegaic Adagio mesto movement, just made for the kind of fadebacks and rushes she likes. Browning takes even longer, about a full minute longer than the speedy Horowitz. However, Browning scores over Boyadjieva in textural clarity and variety of color.

Barber had intended to stop the Sonata there, but Horowitz insisted on a flashy finale. Barber had other commitments, but he promised a new ending. This threw the composer into his customary Hamlet-like back-and-forthings over how such a movement should go. Months passed by, and Barber hadn't settled on anything. In fact, he had, in his own words, "ground to a halt." At this point, Horowitz's live-in dragon, Wanda Toscanini Horowitz, called Barber up and gave him hell (she called him stittico – "constipated" – "that's what you are, a constipated composer"). This so angered Barber, he wrote out the finale – a tremendous four-voice fugue - the next day. Behind every great man is a woman. Poulenc's opinion of the fugue is worth mentioning:

It [the sonata] pleases me without reserve…. In turn, tragical, joyous and songful, it ends up with a fantastically difficult to play fugue. This is a long way from the sad and scholastic fugues of the Hindemith pupils (the pupils, I say). Bursting with energy, this finale knocks you out ('Vous-met knock-out') in (something less than) five minutes.

Outside of a wildly leaping, syncopated chromatic subject, the idea that interests me emphasizes a "blue" third, to an appropriately jazzy rhythm – actually, a standard riff, one that Milhaud also borrows for his jazz fugue in La Création du monde – which appears early as an accompaniment to the subject's second entrance. Surprisingly, Horowitz gets it, and (no surprise at all) so does Browning, who also manages to swing. Boyadjieva doesn't at all. The idiom has simply no part of her, and she also manages to miss the first appearance of that motive. Still, if you can hit the notes, it's hard not to make an effect with this "thinking listerner's" barnstormer. Boyadjieva probably has the most nicely-judged ending of the three. All three, in fact, would bring an audience to its feet.

It's nice to see Browning back. His performance of the sonata supplants Horowitz's as my favorite. Boyadjieva is a fine pianist at a certain disadvantage in this repertoire. I look forward to hearing more from her, however. She thinks big and risks big.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz