BARBER Piano Sonata. Souvenirs. Excursions. Nocturne. Ballade. Two Interludes. Three Sketches. Despite and Still. Hermit Songs. Three Songs, Op. 45. Nuvoletta. Four Songs. (2 CD’s)

by Walter Simmons



BARBER Piano Sonata. Souvenirs. Excursions. Nocturne. Ballade. Two Interludes. Three Sketches ● Leon McCawley (pn) ● SOMM SOMMCD-108 (69:28)

BARBER Despite and Still. Hermit Songs. Three Songs, Op. 45. Nuvoletta. Four Songs ● Melissa Fogarty (sop); Marc Peloquin (pn) ● AUREOLE 101 (48:44)

These recent releases offer extensive surveys of two areas within the small but exquisite output of Samuel Barber: his music for piano solo and his music for voice and piano. The solo piano did not inspire the composer’s most impressive utterances, as did chorus, voice, and orchestra, although some may disagree, especially in defense of the Piano Sonata. True, these pieces do have their merits as well as their weaknesses. The virtually catechistic Piano Sonata is certainly the most ambitious of these, although only the smallest number of pianists has successfully provided evidence for it as one of the greatest American works in the genre, and many commentators have observed that the work reaches for something beyond the composer’s grasp. The Sonata attempts to project a grand neo-romanticism while demonstrating an awareness of some of the materials and techniques associated with modernism, at the same time presenting formidable challenges to the virtuosity of a performer such as Vladimir Horowitz, for whom it was written. More than a few American composers have attempted precisely the same task, and some have been more successful artistically than Barber, although the prominence of his name has assured that none of them has achieved a comparable frequency of performance. The most problematical portion of Barber’s effort is the first movement, which struggles to make the more dissonant ideas convincing, and to integrate those ideas with the more sensuous, romantic material. (Barber managed essentially the same task far more successfully in the first movement of his Piano Concerto.) Part of the problem is that the primary thematic material is placed in registers of the piano that do not lend it sufficient resonance to achieve the intended expressive effect. The second movement is a dainty intermezzo for which I see no structural purpose, although others may disagree. The slow movement is a dark, gloomy nocturne that allows the composer to do what he does best. He had wanted to end the work with this slow movement, but Horowitz insisted on a flashy, technically challenging finale, so Barber reluctantly produced an elaborate fugue based on Hispanic dance rhythms that has served its intended purpose for scores of pianists ever since.

The foregoing serves to highlight the extraordinary accomplishment of the young English pianist Leon McCawley. McCawley was born in the early 1970s, by which time the Barber Sonata was already established as the American neo-romantic piano sonata par excellence. Hence he represents what I have termed a “second-generation performance.” When presenting a relatively new work, soloists and conductors typically show little understanding of the core values of the work and the kinds of emphases and tempos that best project those values. It is usually not until the second generation of performers appears—i.e., those who have grown up already familiar with the piece and with the various prior attempts to present it effectively—that readings begin to appear that really address the rhetorical dynamics of a given work successfully. (“What?!,” I can hear some readers exclaim, “You don’t think that Horowitz was successful in achieving this?” No, I don’t think he was.) I am not saying that NO pianist has been able to project the sonata effectively. Several years ago I discovered a recording whose contents are virtually replicated by the program presented here, featuring a relatively unknown Bulgarian-French pianist named Lilia Boyadjieva, on the small French label Solstice. At the time I cited that disc as the finest all-Barber recording yet to appear, and Barber biographer Barbara Heyman subsequently expressed the same opinion. I must say that this new release matches, and perhaps exceeds, that standard. McCawley fully masters the Sonata’s technical challenges, delineating the often-murky textures with astonishing polyphonic clarity, and revealing a thorough understanding of the rhetoric of the work. The Sonata’s weaknesses may still be evident, but McCawley makes the most convincing case for it that I have heard.

The remaining works are far less ambitious efforts, and are largely of peripheral interest. The exception is the 1959 Nocturne, ostensibly a “homage to John Field,” although Chopin is never far from the composer’s—or the listener’s—mind. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully mysterious, ethereal work in which romantic and even atonal elements are integrated with ease.

Since Barber’s death in 1981, several pieces have emerged—largely juvenilia—that the composer had never intended for public dissemination, and I understand that more are on the way. The ethics of this are highly debatable, although I do not pretend to have a definitive answer or solution. I do believe that the composer’s intentions must be respected, yet I would hate to be without Barber’s Symphony No. 2—one of the great American symphonies of the early 1940s—which the composer unequivocally attempted to destroy.

So it is with some ambivalence that I address the Three Sketches that Barber composed when he was 14. The music is notable for its remarkable sophistication and charm, while displaying the somewhat aloof gentility that characterized his public persona. Of his mature works, the one that these early pieces clearly foreshadow is Souvenirs, the divertissement that Barber composed in 1951, originally for piano, four hands. Subsequently the work was arranged for two hands, for two pianos, and was orchestrated for a ballet created by George Balanchine. Intended as pure entertainment, the music is an evocation of “high society” during the early years of the 20th century, and is far from the elegiac music to which we are accustomed from this composer. However, while perhaps not to everyone’s taste, the music—with its waltz, tango, galop et al.—displays a light touch without a trace of gaucherie. Pianist McCawley is as acute in capturing the elegant refinement and finesse of this music as he is in projecting the complexities of the Sonata.

The Interludes are two more pieces that have surfaced posthumously. Composed during the early 1930s—around the same time as the Overture to the “School for Scandal” and the Cello Sonata—these pieces show even more devotion to the style of Brahms than does the latter work. This may account for the composer’s ultimate rejection of them from his canon. The second is very short and Scherzo-like in the Brahmsian manner. But the first is really quite moving, and is Barber’s only piece for piano that shares features of the beloved early style exemplified by the Essay No. 1 and, of course, the famous Adagio. It is another of the rejected pieces that I enjoy with some guilt.

The Excursions date from the early 1940s, a period when Barber was experimenting with styles—neo-classicism, explicit Americana, etc.—that were being exploited successfully by other composers at the time. Each of these four pieces sticks a toe into such vernacular styles as boogie-woogie, the blues, and the hoe-down. Here Barber was out of his element, resulting in some of his weakest and most embarrassing music. McCawley does what he can with them.

The latest piece on the program is the sadly pathetic Ballade, composed in 1977, after five years of creative silence, during which depression and alcoholism had sapped Barber’s creative drive, although he attempted to revive it in response to the generous commission offered by the Van Cliburn Competition. The 6-minute piece opens and closes with a dreamy descending chord progression that simply goes nowhere despite some Scriabinesque attempts. Sandwiched between is a brief, turbulent passage of equivalent impotence. I must say that this is the one piece into which McCawley is unable to breathe as much life as did Lilia Boyadjieva on her recorded Barber recital.

The other new Barber release discussed here features soprano Melissa Fogarty, along with pianist Marc Peloquin. Their recital focuses on Barber’s later, less well-known song cycles: the deeply moving Despite and Still, and the sadly valedictory Three Songs, Op. 45, written for the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1972. Also included are the Hermit Songs, the Menottiesque Nuvoletta, and such earlier favorites as “Sure on this Shining Night,” “The Secrets of the Old,” “Monks and Raisins,” and “Rain Has Fallen.”

Fogarty possesses an extremely light soprano, with a rapid, fluttery vibrato. She is most effective in the lighter fare, such as Nuvoletta, “The Secrets of the Old,” “Monks and Raisins,” and some of the Hermit Songs. However, frankly, her expressive range is extremely narrow, her enunciation does not project, and that fluttery vibrato becomes increasingly intrusive as one attempts to absorb the relatively short program. Her voice is simply not suited for the wider and deeper range of expression required for the more serious songs. Texts and program notes are not included, but may be downloaded from her Web site.