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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

 

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The John Browning Edition Volume 1
Spoken Introduction by John Browning [1.29]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Chorale Prelude – Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV639 [4.33]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Fantasy in F minor Op.49 [12.59]
Mazurka in F minor Op.63 No.2 – recording incomplete [2.14]
Mazurka in F minor Op.68 No.4 [2.25]
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.35 [30.44]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Impromptu in A flat major [5.30]
John Browning (piano)
rec. College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 22 November 1963
MSR CLASSICS MS 1120 [50.55]
The John Browning Edition Volume 2
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Etude in C minor Op.25 [2.38]
Nocturne in D flat major Op.27 No.2 [7.07]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

La Soirée dans Grenade (Estampes) [5.23]
Deux d’artifice (Préludes II, No.12) [4.33]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)

Sonata for piano Op.26 [19.38]
With spoken introduction to the above [1.27]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)

Etude-Tableaux No.2 in C major Op.33 [2.38]
Etude-Tableaux No.5 in E flat minor Op.39 [5.23]
Etude-Tableaux No.3 in C minor Op.33 [5.38]
Prelude in G major Op.32 No.5 [3.12]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)

Andaluza (Piezas Españolas No.4) [4.23]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)

El Puerto – Iberia [3.42]
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

The Flight of the Bumblebee – arranged Sergei RACHMININOFF [1.22]
Francis HENDRICKS

Etude in B flat minor [3.26]
John Browning (piano)
Recorded in Denver, Colorado, 1950 (Nos.1 and 17), American Theatre Brussels, 1958 (13, 16) College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia. 1964 (14, 15) and unknown locations and dates (2-12)
MSR CLASSICS MS 1121 [70.28]
The John Browning Edition Volume 3
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120 [53.56]
Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor Op.31 No.2 Tempest [18.43]
John Browning (piano)
Recorded in Austin, Texas, 1965 (Diabelli) and unknown (Tempest)
MSR CLASSICS MS 1122 [72.43]
The John Browning Edition Volume 4
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Italian Concerto in F major BWV 971 [12.29]
Prelude from Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major for lute BWV 998 [3.23]
Organ prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV 543 Arranged Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Piano Sonata No.50 in D major Hob.XVI: 37 [8.57]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Sonata in C minor K457 [19.36]
Rondo in F major K616 [6.28]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonata in E major K380 L23 [3.12]
John Browning (piano)
Recorded American Theatre Brussels, 1958 (Organ Prelude), College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia. 1964 (Haydn and Mozart Sonatas) unknown location and dates, remainder
MSR CLASSICS MS 1123 [63.59]

John Browning died in 2003 at the age of seventy. A relatively recent reissue of his 1958 Capitol debut album – on EMI Full Dimensional Sound 67017 – brought together Bach-Busoni, Liszt, Chopin, Schubert and Debussy, amongst others, repertoire that is faithfully mirrored in this four CD edition from MSR. All the volumes are available separately.

Venues range from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, to the American Theatre, Brussels. The dates of recordings span Denver in 1950 to a Virginia recital in 1964 and all the recordings derive from Browning’s own collection. The ground covered includes much adjacent to that Capitol debut, his Barber sonata, some fine Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, some Iberian muse and much else besides. Naturally the recording quality is very variable.

The most poignant of all is the first volume, which was recorded on the evening of the 22 November 1963, the day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He asks the audience for permission to change his programme, to ask for no applause, and to inform them that there will be no intermission. As would befit such an austere and shocking recital his Bach is appropriately slow. He asks the audience to stand for Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ and plays it as a tempo that he doubtless would not have essayed in other circumstances. The Chopin Fantasy is eloquently shaped and contoured, moments of visceral dynamism balanced by liquid reflective passages. His Chopin sonata, a poignant choice, finished the truncated recital and receives a performance of rhythmic incision and unsentimentalised gravity. After he has finished he stands and leaves the platform to utter silence, the sounds of his footsteps on the wooden stage his only accompaniment.

The second volume contains more Chopin but presents an admirably eclectic mix from recitals in 1950, 1958 and 1964. The bulk of the disc however derives from an undated recital without location. The 1950 sound is splintery but one can still appreciate his dynamic and leonine playing as a very young man – he was seventeen and prodigiously gifted – as he essays the Chopin Etude in C minor and Francis Hendriks’s Etude. He was also capable of considerable sensitivity in this sort of romantic repertoire as he evinces in the Nocturne – limpidly done and quite slow in parts. He’s more equable colouristically than his hero Horowitz, especially in Rachmaninoff – though to be fair he makes no attempt to ape the older man’s expressive qualities. In tempi and matters of dynamics he doesn’t aspire to Horowitz’s brand of combustible magnetism. His Barber sonata is a fascinating document because he was one of the pianists who followed in Horowitz’s wake in this work and his status as the premier exponent of the concerto has long clung to him. The sonata performance is undated but bristles with energy and perceptive awareness of structure. The fury and the filigree are both there, the slow movement convincing in all its moods, the finale - "a strict fugue" as Browning announces from the stage – dramatic.

The third disc is all-Beethoven, coupling the Diabelli variations with the Tempest Sonata. The recording here is rather unhelpful inasmuch as it tends to blunt attacks. Still, we can hear Browning’s quite slow and parodically heavy first variation – very different form a modern master of the genre such as Craig Sheppard who tends to a less Schnabelian approach. There are powerful reserves of tonal weight in the slower variations, such as the Grave e mesto of variation fourteen. But there also occasions where impetuosity seems to get the better of him, as in the blurry articulation of the Andante of variation twenty. The Fughetta of No.24 sounds rather objectified but the impression as a whole is strongly positive.

I listened to the Browning performance of the Tempest on the same day that I auditioned Frederic Lamond’s old 78 set made in 1928. Browning’s performance was made only twenty-seven years later but the difference between the rapid, staccato imperatives of Lamond and the legato warmth and leisurely control of Browning were still striking. The veiling of tone in the opening movement is something that pianists of Lamond’s generation would not have countenanced.

The final volume is entirely devoted to the baroque and classical. The Italian Concerto is a touch unbalanced, the first two movements tending towards stolidity and the finale capriciously fast – though contrapuntally things are clear. It’s a shame that the Organ Prelude and Fugue is the earliest of the recordings here (1958) because there’s some muddiness in the sound that can detract from the grandeur of Browning’s playing. That doesn’t trouble the sole example here of Browning’s Haydn, his sonata in D major, No.50. Were one tempted one could contrast his performance with that of Nadia Reisenberg who recorded her set of Haydn sonatas in America at the same time that Browning was recorded. Browning plays this with great strength and purpose but his textures aren’t as clear as hers and his touch sounds over emphatic. Interesting to hear her break her chords in the second movement’s introduction, whereas Browning sounds almost gauntly Beethovenian. Similarly his Mozart sonata does sound rather impatient and whilst he imparts a degree of tension into the Adagio his chording is apt to remain emphatic. There’s more light and shade in the finale than Browning finds and his virile, masculine playing is rather one-dimensional.

Browning had rather an erratic recording career and his legacy on disc surely doesn’t do justice to his great gifts. This is a heart-warming selection and shows just what a powerful and impressive musician he was. The notes are rather too concise for those for whom he is just a name – I think a collection of recollections and fuller biographical details were apposite for a collection culled from his own tapes. Still, these discs will give a strong insight into the younger Browning’s sensitive musicianship.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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