American Classics - Barber: Solo Piano Music / Pollack

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BARBER Piano Sonata. Excursions. Nocturne. 3 Sketches. Interlude I (“For Jeanne”). Ballade. Souveniers Daniel Pollack (pn) NAXOS 8.559015 (72:16)

This release, another in Naxos’s American Classics series, is not new. It was recorded in 1995, hit the street, as they say, in 1998, and was reviewed by Walter Simmons in Fanfare 22:6.

Samuel Barber’s catalog of works is not large compared to other 20th-century American composers; his near contemporary Aaron Copland comes to mind. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to read the subheading on the disc, “Complete Published Works for Solo Piano.” I guess I’ve come to expect a larger output for piano by major composers who played the instrument themselves and wrote for it extensively. Barber was no exception; he played the organ from a very young age and studied piano, composition, and voice at Curtis. So it seems strange that he wrote as little for piano as he did.

One of the ironies of Barber, the composer, is that for the most part he did not fall into the “Americana” mode of Ives, Gershwin, and Copland; yet in a way he is the most American of American composers. Though his musical vocabulary and style are of the 20th century, he was in spirit a neoromantic. By a sheer fluke, his Adagio for Strings became America’s national music of mourning. We’ll probably never know what possessed a radio announcer to choose Barber’s Adagio to broadcast on the announcement of FDR’s death, but since then it has been played on more than one occasion of state mourning, and not just in the U.S. It was performed in 2001 at the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the victims of September 11th; and as recently as April 13, 2010, it was performed at a special joint session of the Polish Parliament and Senate three days after the plane crash that took the lives of the Polish president, his wife, and scores of Polish government officials and members of the clergy.

Nothing else Barber (or few other composers) wrote ever achieved such widespread recognition. Of all his works, however, those for solo piano are possibly the least appreciated, and not entirely without reason; yet according to Vladimir Horowitz, Barber was the only American composer to write piano music with such “an extremely natural feeling” for the instrument.

The Piano Sonata, op. 26, is Barber’s largest-scaled work for piano and one of his knottiest. It was written for the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers and premiered by Horowitz in 1950. Its texture is highly dense and its harmonic language fairly dissonant, employing augmented triads, chords built from fourths, and even a number of non-serialized 12-note rows. It takes a pianist possessed of prodigious technique just to play the notes; to make musical sense of it and to project its structure and inner beauties require an artist capable of connecting in a rapt and riveting way with the listener. This, Pollack achieves most effectively, as does Marc-André Hamelin in a reading for Hyperion. Horowitz recorded the piece in 1950 for RCA, but the sound is not great, and despite the pianist’s testimonial to the composer, his performance doesn’t convince me that he really understood and related to Barber’s persona.

Excursions is Barber’s earliest published piano piece. In four movements bearing a surface resemblance to classical sonata layout, the work tries hard to avoid that association—and largely succeeds—by adapting conventional forms such as rondo and theme-and-variations to contemporary idioms of jazz and blues. Once again it was Horowitz who premiered the piece in 1945, but only the first, second, and fourth movements, since Barber had not yet written the third.

The Nocturne, titled “Homage to John Field,” composed in 1959, would probably not have been appreciated by its honoree. You might call it a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. Over a Chopinesque arpeggiated accompaniment in the left hand, the right hand spins out a melody so chromatic as to sound atonal, which indeed it is, turning out in fact to be another example of Barber’s 12-tone technique.

The Three Sketches dating from 1923–24 are personal, private, and intimate miniatures, each lasting around a minute. The first, “Lovesong,” is dedicated to the composer’s mother; the third, Minuet, to his sister. The second bears a tongue-in-cheek dedication to “No. 220601,” the serial number of Barber’s Steinway piano.

Interlude I (“For Jeanne”) was the composer’s second piece, after Excursions , to be published. The “Jeanne” for whom the piece was written in 1931 was Jeanne Behrend, a pianist and one of Barber’s fellow students at the Curtis Institute. The booklet note indicates that Barber himself gave the first performance of the work, and no mention is made of whether Behrend herself ever played the piece in public.

In 1977, 46 years later, Barber produced his last work, the Ballade, a morceau de concours requested from him by the organizers of the fifth Van Cliburn Piano Competition. By the time he came to write the piece, he was deeply depressed. The Mount Kisco, New York, home that Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti had shared as life partners for over 30 years—they named the house “Capricorn”—had been sold, and Menotti had moved to Scotland to reside with an adopted son. Reflecting his mental state, Barber gave the Ballade’s expressive marking as “Restless.”

The disc closes with Souvenirs , a set of six pieces Barber wrote in 1951 at the suggestion of his friend Charles Turner. On their frequent visits to New York’s Blue Angel Club, the two would enjoy a popular piano duo team, known as Edie and Rack, known for their arrangements of popular melodies and Broadway tunes in a more sophisticated, uptown style. Barber’s settings are to his own original melodies, but they closely mimic a classics-light, salon style. The pieces were originally written for piano four hands, so that Barber and Turner could play them together. The score underwent further arrangements by Barber himself as a ballet and as a work for piano and orchestra, as well as by the well-known piano duo Gold and Fizdale, who arranged it for two pianos.

As stated above, Barber’s works for solo piano are possibly the least appreciated portion of his output, and not entirely for reasons unjustified. Much of this music, to borrow a phrase once used in reference to Wagner, may be better than it sounds; but since listening rather than analyzing is likely to be one’s first impression and possibly only experience of the music, one may take little pleasure in what he hears. This is not the lush, lyrical, post-late-Romantic music by which Barber is largely known and loved.

Pianist Daniel Pollack plays these pieces technically as well as anyone I’ve heard, and perhaps even more musically convincingly than does Horowitz, whose virtuosic wizardry and surface glitz, impressive as they were, may have missed mining some of Barber’s deeper veins. On a personal level, I can’t honestly say that much of this music appeals to me, and it probably never will; but Pollack’s performances are so persuasive that I find myself being drawn intellectually, if not emotionally, into Barber’s sound world to a degree I’ve not experienced with other versions of these pieces I know. If you didn’t acquire this CD when it first appeared a dozen years ago, I’d recommend you give it a try. No money-back guarantees, but as a feat of keyboard artistry alone, it’s worth the price of admission.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559015

  • UPC: 636943901526

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Samuel Barber

  • Performer: Daniel Pollack