Samuel Barber: The Complete Solo Piano Music

Samuel Barber: The Complete Solo Piano Music

by John Browning


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Samuel Barber: The Complete Solo Piano Music

Samuel Barber -- as can be heard in the song accompaniments and few demos he recorded -- was an excellent pianist. Though his catalog of piano music is not as extensive as his output for voice and piano, it is significant and is found in all parts of Barber's career. Late pianist John Browning was often described as Barber's "favorite" pianist; he was the dedicatee and first performer of Barber's "Piano Concerto" (1963), the work that won Barber his second Pulitzer Prize. Browning recorded Barber's concerto twice and also recorded the "Piano Sonata" (1949) separately for Desto in 1971 before recording what Browning regarded as the whole, legitimate piano solo cycle for MusicMasters in 1993, here reissued on Nimbus. No two recorded collections of Barber's piano music, even those designated as "complete," have the same contents; in this case, Browning decided to forgo the piano solo incarnation of the four-hand "Souvenirs, Op. 28" (1952), though he added, for the first time, the first of Barber's two early "Interludes, Adagio for Jeanne" (1932). The second "Interlude" and a handful of other short posthumous piano pieces have surfaced on CD since Browning weighed in on the issue in 1993; however, none of these pieces bear the same atomic weight as the essentials included here: the "Sonata," "Excursions, Op. 20" (1944), "Nocturne, Op. 33" (1959), and "Ballade, Op. 46" (1977). "Favorite" or not -- although Browning's cultivation of Barber had an unquestionably positive effect, it's hard to imagine the lonely and quiescent composer making such a designation -- it is clear that Browning's interpretations are authoritative. Barber was an American with an aristocratic bent; though he did not seek out social interaction as a rule, and lived at Mount Kisco because he didn't want to be swept up in the social whirl in New York City, Barber subscribed to European values of culture and easily ingratiated himself in higher levels of society. Browning's interpretations reflect the man; they are cool, controlled, and proportional and never project unbridled passion. Overall, this approach is highly successful. It adds fire and steel to the fast movements of the "Sonata"; a gentle, flowing quality to the "Nocturne"; and reveals the protracted anger and heartache lurking beneath the "Ballade." Likewise, Browning is aware of the extreme concision of Barber's utterances and the dictates of his formal sensibility: Chopin has 21 nocturnes and Barber has one. Chopin has four ballades and Barber has one. Each statement Barber made in a given genre has to count as absolute, otherwise the piece will not elude the wastebasket at Mount Kisco; that is partly why so little additional material has trickled out from Barber's cabinet even though three decades have passed since he laid down his pen. The odd man out here, however, is "Excursions"; often derided as a half-hearted attempt to kowtow to populism, these bright, relaxed, and virtuosic miniatures might be seen as among the most forward-looking piano music Barber ever wrote, with his rich, romantic vocabulary enveloping relatively simple, diatonic ideas. Browning doesn't deliver a lot of warmth here and might be a little out of sympathy with the pieces; numerous pianists have demonstrated that a wealth of warmth is possible in this set, including Vladimir Horowitz, whose excerpt performance of "Excursions," drawn from scratchy acetates but revealing flawless playing, was issued in the 1990s. So, while authoritative, Browning's "complete" cycle of Barber's piano music is not the absolute litmus test that perhaps some would make of it. However, Samuel Barber: The Complete Solo Piano Music is a superlative effort overall, and Nimbus is certainly to be thanked for bringing it back to the active catalog, as it is a milestone recording of a cycle now considered central to twentieth century American piano literature.

Product Details

Release Date: 04/14/2009
Label: Nimbus Records
UPC: 0710357252822
catalogNumber: 2528


  1. Sonata for piano, Op. 26
  2. Interludes (Intermezzi) (2), for piano: Interlude No. 1 (Adagio for Jeanne)
  3. Nocturne "Hommage to John Field", for piano, Op. 33
  4. Ballade, for piano, Op. 46
  5. Excursions (4), for piano, Op. 20

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