BARBER: Complete Works for Solo Piano – Excursions, Op. 20. Sonata, Op. 26. Souvenirs, Op. 28. Nocturne, Op. 33. Ballads, Op. 46.

BARBER: Complete Works for Solo Piano. Eric Parkin, piano. CHANDOS–CHAN 9177 [DDD]; 63:04. Produced by Mike George. Excursions, Op. 20. Sonata, Op. 26. Souvenirs,Op. 28. Nocturne, Op. 33. Ballads, Op. 46.

This is a very disappointing new release, I am sorry to report. To my ears, Parkin is simply the wrong pianist for this music, veiling it all under a lazy, nostalgic haze. Yes, there is that element in Barber’s character, and in some of these pieces in particular, but it doesn’t need to be exaggerated; in fact, sometimes it needs to be counter-balanced. For example, Barber’s foray into salon music, Souvenirs, is pure nostalgia, and I suspect that this is this piece that holds the greatest appeal for Parkin, because he plays all the music on this disc as if this campy ballet were the aesthetic standard-bearer. Yet even Souvenirs sounds lumpy and rhythmically slack in Parkin’s hands, thoroughly lacking the necessary flair and panache.

Excursions, Barber’s genteel distillation of American vernacular styles, such as the blues, hoe-down, and boogie woogie, is already so tender-footed that it benefits from a performance that offers a little backbone. However, Parkin’s soft-focus reading makes the piece sound tepid and silly. 

The late Ballade, whose theme and mood recall the much earlier Music from a Scene from Shelley, is a very weak piece, written when Barber was suffering from depression and alcoholism. It is a stillborn effort, and Parkin is unable to bring it to life.

But the problematic Sonata is a real disaster: Parkin seems thoroughly unresponsive to the elements of dramatic conflict and visceral energy inherent in the work. Indeed, he seems almost to recoil from them, resulting in the limpest and most anemic performance I have ever heard. The concluding fugue, which usually creates a sensational effect, simply falls flat.

The only piece that really comes off successfully is the 4-minute Nocturne, a haunting homage to Chopin that calls for precisely the dreamy approach that Parkin lends to everything here.

Despite all the attention it has received during recent years, Barber’s piano music still awaits a convincing advocate.