BARBER: Sonata for Piano. Souvenirs. Nocturne.

by Walter Simmons

BARBER: Sonata for Piano. Souvenirs. Nocturne. Ruth Laredo, piano. NONESUCH D-79032 (digital), produced by Ray Moore. $11.98.

Recently (Fanfare V:1, p. 68-9) I discussed a Hyperion disc (A66016) featuring piano music by the late Samuel Barber, in performances by Angela Brownridge. Nonesuch’s new digital release covers some of the same material, although Ms. Laredo offers the trifling Souvenirs(1952) in a rarely heard version for solo piano in lieu of the Excursions and the Ballade. As the Hyperion recording is poor sonically and Brownridge’s performances are mediocre at best, the presence of Barber’s 1977 Ballade ––  a piece worth knowing, otherwise unrecorded — is the disc’s sole virtue.

Barber’s 1949 Sonata, Op. 26 is the most widely performed American piano sonata, and many fine pianists have attempted to meet its formidable demands. It is a good, substantial work, although, as I wrote in my earlier review, the exclusive attention lavished on it is a bit excessive, as there are many other comparable works at least as rewarding to both performer and listener. (Laredo might do well to investigate the sonatas of Nicolas Flagello, Peter Mennin, or Robert Muczynski, not to mention the 12 of Vincent Persichetti.) The sonata is a full-length, 4-movement work in a style that combines the warm, impetuous romanticism of Barber’s earlier music with drier, more angular neoclassical elements (although references often made by commentators to 12-tone aspects are wholly irrelevant and misleading). Here, as in several other works from the 1940s, the result is less homogeneous and spontaneous than it was to become in later works, such as Andromache’s Farewell and Antony and Cleopatra, in which a more fully integrated style appeared. The inconsistencies of the piano sonata — not to mention the intentional complexities — create a considerable challenge for the pianist, and allow for a rather wide variety of interpretive approaches. The first movement is agitated and impulsive, with a complex, multi-layered texture suggesting late Scriabin more than anyone else, and requiring the pianist to delineate the broad structural outlines while preserving the subsidiary intricacies. The second movement is a brief, playful intermezzo that I find superfluous. The third movement is somber and lugubrious, with a gradual climactic buildup that must be gauged carefully for best effect. The final movement is a vigorous fugue replete with enormous technical hurdles.

In addition to the Laredo and Brownridge performances, Horowitz’s celebrated 1950 recording is still available on RCA ARM1-2952, while a rendition from the mid-1960s by John Browning, who introduced the 1962 Piano Concerto and demonstrates a true affinity for the Barber style, can be found on Desto DC-7120. Unfortunately, Van Cliburn’s 1971 performance on RCA LSC-3229 has been deleted. Each of these performances has merits of its own. Horowitz offers a propulsive reading, less analytical than the others, but perhaps more virtuosic. Of course, the dated recording quality results in a rather opaque sound that hides a good deal of the textural interest. But Horowitz shapes the third movement more effectively than his colleagues, building dramatically to a huge climax. Browning’s version is miked rather closely, resulting in a brittle, somewhat shallow transparency. It is a fine performance, emphasizing the angular qualities of the music, though phrased rather freely. (Another virtue of this disc is the inclusion of Richard Cumming’s Twenty-Four Preludes, a most attractive group of pieces strongly reflecting the Barber influence.) However, Desto’s surfaces are notoriously variable. Cliburn’s performance is also excellent-with the best sound quality of the lot — although it heaves and sighs with an almost Schumann-like Romanticism. Not to be overlooked is Cliburn’s handling of the final moments of the fugue, which can sound either anticlimactic or overblown and noisy. Each pianist wrestles with this problem in his own way, but none is as successful as Cliburn in finding the perfect solution and execution.

Into this field of alternative interpretations enters Ruth Laredo, certainly one of the most impressive pianists of her generation. Having long admired her brilliant performances of the late Scriabin sonatas, in which she clarifies their elusive structures with great mastery, I expected the same penetrating approach in her rendition of the Barber sonata. The rhapsodic first movement, after all, which is really the keystone of the work, demands quite the same sort of interpretation. But, although her reading has many fine qualities, this analytical clarity is not present. She brings to the work a lofty, philosophical detachment, reflective and impressionistic, underlining a coincidental similarity to Keith Jarrett’s ruminative improvisations. This impression is probably accentuated by a rather distant sonic perspective. Laredo’s is perhaps the broadest presentation of the work, but I am not sure it is the most effective. Beyond the first movement, however, the performance is better, especially for the body of the fugue. Taking a more relaxed tempo than most, she projects delightfully nifty rhythmic and contrapuntal intricacies that elude most pianists in their headlong rush. Only in the extended coda does she miss the interpretive possibilities caught by Cliburn.

Originally written as salon music for piano, 4 hands, Souvenirs was later orchestrated and used as a ballet score. It is unintentional camp and, I think, an embarrassment to Barber’s reputation. I wish it were not played as often as it is. Nevertheless, Laredo presents the composer’s solo version idiomatically and reasonably tastefully. The Nocturne in homage to John Field is a lovely piece, ideal as an encore.

The review pressing I received was a little noisy, with a tendency towards shatter in the loud passages.