by Walter Simmons
Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto was one of the greatest popular successes of his later years. It was commissioned by his publisher G. Schirmer, in celebration of their hundredth anniversary, with a premiere to take place during the opening week of New York City’s imposing new cultural mecca, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in September 1962. Barber selected John Browning as his soloist and, as he often did, worked closely with the pianist during the process of composition.
Barber’s Piano Concerto is remarkable for its absorption of some of the sound and feeling of the then-fashionable “serial” style within an unabashedly neo-romantic composition. (This differs from such Barber works as the Sonata for Piano and the Nocturne, whose employment of twelve-tone material is utterly irrelevant to the serial style.) Without actually employing twelve-tone rows, Barber devised highly chromatic, nearly atonal thematic material, emphasizing wide-interval leaps, jagged, disjointed gestures, and irregular rhythmic groupings, and subsumed them within a conventionally structured virtuoso concerto, balancing such material with passages of lyrical passion and ferocious cadenzas, all of which culminate in dramatic climaxes.
The first movement is a tempestuous, but formally straightforward sonata allegro. The piano begins with a statement of angular, chromatic thematic material in the manner of a solo recitative. The orchestra then introduces a passionate, wide-ranging, almost atonal theme. After some development, the oboe presents a gorgeous, if more conventional, secondary theme, infused with typically Barberian poignancy. The development of all these ideas is unusually elaborate and complex for Barber, before a hair-raising cadenza and a full recapitulation lead the movement toward a decisive conclusion.
The second movement is an expansion of a nostalgic, thoroughly tonal Canzone for flute and piano that Barber had written in 1959. The expansion fully retains the expressive essence of its source, adding nothing significant beyond further ornamented repetitions of the pentatonic melody in different keys, clothed in varying textures and instrumentation. A bridge figure based on descending fourths separates the melodic repetitions.
The third movement is a propulsive five-part rondo in 5/8 meter, in the manner of a frenetic toccata. The main thematic idea is somewhat reminiscent of the style of Prokofiev. The movement is enormously difficult to play, but creates a brilliantly exciting effect. As was often the case with Barber, writing the finale had become a stumbling block for the composer, and was only completed some two weeks before the premiere! The concerto made a dazzling impact at its first performance, with the visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.
Barber’s Piano Concerto won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and the 1964 Music Critics’ Circle Award. John Browning recorded the work and performed it some fifty times between 1962 and 1964, stating that it was one of the most difficult concertos he had ever played. By 1969 it had enjoyed 150 performances. The work may be the most frequently performed American concerto for any instrument composed since 1950.
© Walter Simmons
BBC Proms Concert 2016