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.

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. 
Excursions 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 

A very humane and personal portrait.