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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Piano Works
Excursions Op. 20 (1944) [14:26]
Piano Sonata Op. 26 (1948) [22:15]
Ballade Op. 46 (1977) [7:38]
Souvenirs Op. 28 (1951) [17:20]
Nocturne Op. 33 (1959) [5:02]
Yesuel Moon (piano)
Hardy Rittner (piano in Souvenirs)
rec. 2019, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
MDG SACD 904 2177-6 [66:42]

The piano sonata of Samuel Barber (no relation by the way) is one of the great American piano works of the twentieth century and has been much recorded. It is here the centrepiece of an interesting debut recital, which also includes his other published piano works – there are also some early pieces to which he did not give opus numbers – and his duet Souvenirs. The pianist is Yesuel Moon who hails from South Korea, has already won several prizes and has more recently been studying in Germany. Hardy Rittner, her duet partner in Souvenirs, is also one of her teachers.

We begin with Excursions. ‘These are “Excursions” in small classical forms in regional American idioms,’ said the composer. His publisher referred to ‘its dry Stravinskian version of boogie-woogie, blues, cowboy songs and hoedown.’ I would say that there is nothing dry about this set of pieces, nor indeed about Stravinsky’s own work. The first is playful and witty and a good test for Moon’s nimble fingers. I found the second rather aimless and meandering. The third is a charming tune and accompaniment with a middle section which is livelier and more virtuosic. The fourth reminded me of the Hoedown in Copland’s Rodeo, written at about the same time and based on a folk song.

The Ballade is very different. This is a late work, composed after the debacle of Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra, which sent him into a depression. It is a meditative work; its opening is uncannily close to that of Scriabin’s ninth sonata, though thereafter it finds its own way.

The piano sonata was championed by Horowitz, who also played a part in its composition, having already premiered Excursions. Barber had planned the work in three movements but Horowtitz encouraged him to add ‘a very flashy last movement, but with content.’ The first movement has a declamatory opening featuring leaps and a more lyrical second theme. Twelve-tone rows feature but not other aspects of serial technique; in fact, the idiom I would describe as some way between Walton and Tippett. The scherzo is short and tricksy, with frequent changes of metre, some bitonality and sudden switches of register. The slow movement is a passacaglia and tragic in its feeling. The finale is virtuosic not only in its pianism but also in its composition, being for most of its length, fugal. Towards the end Barber abandons fugue for real bravura writing; I wonder whether he had the ending of Beethoven’s fugal finale from the Hammerklavier sonata at the back of his mind.

Souvenirs is a set of six sketches for piano duet. Barber subsequently arranged it for solo piano, for two pianos and for orchestra. I am slightly surprised that Moon did not choose to play the solo version, but this duet version is the original. These are light pieces in a variety of dance forms, none long and all charming. Moon and the veteran Hardy Rittner make a fine duet team.

Finally, we have the Nocturne. This is subtitled Homage to John Field. The Irish composer Field invented the Nocturne as a piano genre, though of course it was Chopin, who admired Field, who popularized it. Despite the subtitle, this sounds to me much closer to Chopin than to Field, reworking Chopin’s style in a twentieth-century idiom. Actually, the increasingly elaborate treble part over a relatively unchanging bass reminded me even more of Chopin’s Berceuse. Again, there are twelve-tone rows but the idiom remains lyrical.

Yesuel Moon tackles all these pieces with gusto, revelling in the different moods of the shorter works and rising to the challenge of the piano sonata. I enjoyed her playing very much. The recording – I was listening in two-channel stereo – is excellent. There are, of course, numerous other recordings of the sonata; Horowitz’s own seems currently unobtainable on CD though it is available in other formats. Of other versions I am familiar with Hamelin’s predictably powerful version, coupled on Hyperion with Ives’s Concord sonata. There are other versions with the rest of Barber’s small but impressive piano output, but I am happy to recommend Moon’s debut disc as both enterprising and rewarding.

Stephen Barber

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