One of the most grown-up review sites around
One of the most grown-up review sites around

Search MusicWeb Here


International mailing

Up to 40% off

  Founder: Len Mullenger

Some items
to consider

in the first division

extraordinary by any standards

An excellent disc

a new benchmark

summation of a lifetime’s experience.

Piano Concertos 1 and 2
Surprise Best Seller and now

A Garland for John McCabe


DIETHELM Symphonies

The best Rite of Spring in Years

BACH Magnificat

Brian Symphs 8, 21, 26

Just enjoy it!

La Mer Ticciati








Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical

Nimbus Podcast

Obtain 10% discount

Special offer 50% off

Musicweb sells the following labels
Acte Préalable
(THE Polish label)
Altus 10% off
Atoll 10% off
CRD 10% off
Hallé 10% off
Lyrita 10% off
Nimbus 10% off
Nimbus Alliance
Prima voce 10% off
Red Priest 10% off
Retrospective 10% off
Saydisc 10% off
Sterling 10% off

Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing

Sample: See what you will get

Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
Rob Barnett
Senior Editor
John Quinn
Seen & Heard
Editor Emeritus
   Bill Kenny
Editor in Chief
MusicWeb Webmaster
   David Barker
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger


CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
The Solo Piano Works
Three Sketches (1923-1924) [2:57]
Souvenirs, Op.28 (1950) [17:24]
Interlude I (1929) [4:53]
Interlude II (1931) [1:51]
Excursions, Op.20 (1942-44) [12:03]
Nocturne Homage to John Field, Op.33 (1959) [3:54]
Sonata for Piano, Op.26 (1947-49) [19:27]
Ballade, Op.46 (1977) [5:55]
Leon McCawley (piano)
rec. September 2010, Champs Hill, Pulborough, West Sussex. DDD.

Experience Classicsonline

English pianist Leon McCawley presents to us on one disc all that is known today of Samuel Barber’s music for piano solo. He has already recorded a disc of Barber’s piano music for Virgin EMI in 1997 (724354 537029). On SOMM’s site he explains why he decided to make this second recording: “I have always had a special affinity with Barber’s music. Although at the time I had felt convinced that I had done the music full justice, I gradually became increasingly dissatisfied with that first disc which I had recorded 15 years ago. I had been feeling for some time that my interpretation had grown and matured over the years. I had also been able to re-visit the repertoire in Barber’s centenary year in 2010 with many concert performances, all enthusiastically received, particularly the Sonata, so I felt convinced that given the chance of a new recording and my close collaboration with SOMM, I could offer new insight into Barber’s piano music with interpretations of added zest and sparkle which, I also now feel, are more sure-footed and give a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions.”
John Browning, the Barber champion, recorded a Grammy-winning album of Barber’s solo piano music in 1993 (on MusicMasters, reissued on Nimbus), and it’s with this record I did my comparison listening. Browning’s album was called “The complete solo piano music”, but the present disc adds to it the juvenile Three Sketches, the one-piano version of the dance suite Souvenirs, and the Interlude II - the latter was not present either on McCawley’s first record, nor on the Naxos disc by Daniel Pollack, so this is probably the only place where you can hear it.
The Three Sketches were written when Barber was 14, and are sketches indeed. These are miniature waltzes, simple and unpretentious but sweet and pretty. The first is a love-song with a Spanish swaying, the second is a tender lullaby, and the third lilts and is Chopinesque. This cheerful attitude is continued in Souvenirs, which was originally written for four hands and orchestrated as a ballet. This is a line of dances of varying character, with humor, surprises, charades, and the general atmosphere of a Schubertiade. There are some sentimental echoes of Tchaikovsky. The old times are remembered with affection and sweet nostalgia. While not being a must-hear, these musical pictures have some remarkable moments, and are never less than good. It must be great fun to hear this music in concert.
The first Interlude is dark and tense. It is Brahmsian, of this kind of Intermezzos that Brahms would call “the lullabies of my sorrows”. In bluish-gray palette, it speaks of loneliness and fears, but also of beauty and sudden rays of happiness. The performance of John Browning is more sparse and barren, with harsh sound in loud places. McCawley is faster, more dynamic and dramatic. He controls the sound better and avoids metallic clangour. The silhouette of Brahms is even more discernible in the Interlude II. This is not an Intermezzo anymore, but is very close to the Ballade from Brahms’ Op.118: restless, agitated, dark and unbalanced, desperately lashing from side to side. 

is another suite, but it has a more improvisatory and introspective character. Barber was not a musical nationalist, but during the War years he made a few steps towards the Americana. The first movement is a blue toccata with boiling torrent, growing and falling, swaying hither and yon over an ostinato boogie-woogie bass, accentuated and syncopated. The piano sound is shrill at times, and the loud top notes are naked. The second movement is soft and bluesy, lazy and warm. Browning’s performance makes me sleepy; McCawley’s is more lively, softly rocking like waves on the shore of a warm sea. The third movement smells like Christmas Eve. This is a set of variations, some of them quite popsicle-style. Browning gives us sweet syrup, moderate and steady. McCawley plays faster again, and adds an uneven, rolling feeling. He makes the piece more attractive: a sleigh ride instead of a carol. The last movement has the beat of a hoe-down, with stomping and jumping. It’s sharp and rhythmic, as if Petrushka’s Shrovetide Fair had moved to one of the fair fields of Texas. McCawley makes more sense out of this music: in his hands it is lighter and merrier, not so angular as with Browning.  
Nocturne is dark and luscious. The name is very apposite. This is Egyptian night: black, grandiose, decorated with rich golden brocade. McCawley is again fast. This time I think he is too fast. The music loses some of its measured nobility and self-confidence, and is turned into a sort of Barcarolle.
The monumental Piano Sonata is Barber’s main statement in the solo piano repertoire. For me, the first movement depicts a lonely struggle. One side is the hostile external force, expressed in the brutal and rhetorical first theme, angular and highly syncopated. On the other side is the tired soul, in whose sad motif I hear a telling parallel to the motif of the words “Despite and still” from one of Barber’s last songs. McCawley plays with power yet without excess. He finds and projects the logic of this music better than Browning.
The second movement is short and effective. It is a Mendelssohnian scherzo, cool and silvery, a mysterious waltz full of glittering water-drops. McCawley here applies more pressure than necessary, so the music loses some of the elfin lightness that I feel in Browning’s interpretation. Its mystery is also compromised.
The slow movement is introspective and gloomy. The music is cold and glassy, with a funereal air. Browning’s slow inescapable pace makes a deeper impression than the more impatient approach from McCawley, The latter delivers more impressive climaxes but the mesmerizing fascination of this midnight music suffers unduly. It’s still creepy, but its horrors are now more graphic. Browning’s interpretation works better with Barber’s intention to end the sonata after this movement.
Vladimir Horowitz, the work’s dedicatee and first performer, persuaded the composer to add a virtuosic fourth movement. Thus despair does not have the last word in this sonata. This movement is a grand Fugue, Allegro con spirito: dense and defiant, polyphonic and modern, strong and independent. Again, McCawley is faster than Browning, and so while Browning’s interpretation is mighty and steady, McCawley produces some quite unexpected jazziness. The music becomes a rolling toccata, throwing a bridge back to the quicksilver second movement. Browning is more heroic; McCawley more thrilling. I find the latter’s performance more gripping throughout.
The disc closes with the Ballade, the last piano work by an insecure and burnt-out composer. It is in ternary form. The main motif is more rhythmic than melodic, akin to Janaček’s Veruju from the Glagolitic Mass. Browning’s outer sections are more misty and bleak, McCawley’s are more colorful. Personally, I think bleak works better here: it provides more contrast with the stormy middle episode. McCawley in the outer sections distils an almost religious solemnity, and his middle section projects real terror. His reading is very embossed. The disc ends in the way Barber wanted to end his Sonata: in desolation and loneliness.
The recording quality is very good. The acoustics are spacious. The sound is well defined. The piano communicates cleanly and only rarely rings on the loud notes. The insert note is in English and French and addresses the music as well as outlining the pianist’s biography.
This is an excellent collection of Barber’s piano music. It is performed with devotion and technical brilliance while remaining emotionally faithful. The tempi are consistently fast, so at times I feel that the spirit is lost in the speed - mostly in the slower parts. I understand that this is the added zest and sparkle that McCawley promised. The result is certainly thrilling. This disc shows different facets of Barber’s legacy and depicts him in a portrait that is both personal and very humane. 

Oleg Ledeniov 


































































Making a Donation to MusicWeb

Writing CD reviews for MWI

About MWI
Who we are, where we have come from and how we do it.

Site Map

How to find a review

How to find articles on MusicWeb
Listed in date order

Review Indexes
   By Label
      Select a label and all reviews are listed in Catalogue order
   By Masterwork
            Links from composer names (eg Sibelius) are to resource pages with links to the review indexes for the individual works as well as other resources.

Themed Review pages

Jazz reviews


      Composer surveys
      Unique to MusicWeb -
a comprehensive listing of all LP and CD recordings of given works
Prepared by Michael Herman

The Collector’s Guide to Gramophone Company Record Labels 1898 - 1925
Howard Friedman

Book Reviews

Complete Books
We have a number of out of print complete books on-line

With Composers, Conductors, Singers, Instumentalists and others
Includes those on the Seen and Heard site


Nostalgia CD reviews

Records Of The Year
Each reviewer is given the opportunity to select the best of the releases

Monthly Best Buys
Recordings of the Month and Bargains of the Month

Arthur Butterworth Writes

An occasional column

Phil Scowcroft's Garlands
British Light Music articles

Classical blogs
A listing of Classical Music Blogs external to MusicWeb International

Reviewers Logs
What they have been listening to for pleasure



Bulletin Board

Give your opinions or seek answers

Pat and present

Helpers invited!

How Did I Miss That?

Currently suspended but there are a lot there with sound clips

Composer Resources

British Composers

British Light Music Composers

Other composers

Film Music (Archive)
Film Music on the Web (Closed in December 2006)

Programme Notes
For concert organizers

External sites
British Music Society
The BBC Proms
Orchestra Sites
Recording Companies & Retailers
Online Music
Agents & Marketing
Other links
Web News sites etc

A pot-pourri of articles

MW Listening Room
MW Office

Advice to Windows Vista users  
Site History  
What they say about us
What we say about us!
Where to get help on the Internet
CD orders By Special Request
Graphics archive
Currency Converter
Web Ring
Translation Service

Rules for potential reviewers :-)
Do Not Go Here!
April Fools

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.