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ClassicsOnline Home » BARBER: Piano Sonata, Op. 26 / Excursions / Souvenirs
The Composer: Samuel Barber was born Pennsylvania, in 1910, his father a physician and his mother the sister of the famous American contralto, Louise Homer. From the age of six Samuel displayed prodigious musical gifts, and at the age of thirteen he was accepted by the newly established Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Though he studied composition, the piano dominated his studies until he was eighteen. His gifts as a composer were publically acknowledged in 1933 with the first performance of his Overture to The School for Scandal.
Though he received several important awards, it was to be another five years before that early success was eventually confirmed, when Arturo Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony
Orchestra in his Essay for Orchestra No.1 and Adagio for Strings. It was the Adagio that became one of the most popular American works of serious music, though the composer hardly intended it to be used for the rather sombre circumstances of American state funerals. During World War II, Barber served in the Army Air Corps and received a commission from the Air Force for his Second Symphony.
He wrote three operas, Vanessa, A Hand of Bridge, and Antony and Cleopatra; two ballets, Medea and Souvenirs; three Essays for orchestra, two symphonies, concertos each for violin, piano and cello, chamber music, works for piano, as well as choral compositions.
In the main his music was melodic with a keen sense of sound colours, and there was a conservatism to his music that allowed audiences easy access to his music. Towards the end of his life there was a growing intensity, strength and a modernity in his writing. He died in January 1981 in New York after ill health had involved a series of periods in hospital.
The Music: Though one of the most highly regarded American composers of this century, a number of works still await publication, including nine for piano. The present disc contains all of the published works, and amount to just seven scores. The earliest are the Three Sketches (1923-24). They are light salon pieces in a very romantic genre, the first piece is called Love Song, a short nostalgic waltz dedicated to Barber's mother. The second piece, To My Steinway, is a sweet waltz-like adagio written in honour of his prized childhood instrument. The last piece, Minuet, is of infinite charm and based on Beethoven's Minuet No.2. Chronologically, the next work is the Interlude No.1, composed in 1931, its brooding atmosphere now moving a long way from those early cameos.
Although Vladimir Horowitz is accredited as having given the first performance of the Four Excursions, in fact he played just three of the pieces. The work was begun in 1942 and completed in 1944. With public anticipation surrounding the work, Barber gave the first, third and fourth Excursions to Horowitz, who played them on 4th January 1945. It was left to Jeanne Behrend to become the first pianist to play the complete set in December 1948. Characterised by catchy and unusual rhythms they have the pulsating atmosphere of a busy Manhatten. The first is based on the dance craze of the era, the boogie-woogie; the second in "blues" style; the third reminiscent of Latin American popular music; the fourth suggests the barn dance.
One of the great landmarks of American piano music is Barber's monumental Piano Sonata, completed in 1949. It is a tough and uncompromising score demanding the ultimate in modern technical prowess, and can be viewed as a 20th century equivalent to the Liszt sonata for solo piano. It was given the full media treatment with Horowitz declaring it a 20th century masterpiece, and performing it on numerous occasions. It is in four movements, the first requiring a steel-fingered performer, the jagged rhythms packing the music with ferocious virtuosity. The second movement is a high octane scherzo with a demonic happiness. The opening of the third movement has been likened to helpless bird cries, before a more lyrical passage takes control. The final movement is a quick and agitated fugue that calls for an even greater display of pianistic wizardry.
Souvenirs started out life as a work for four hands and was completed in that format in 1951. Barber subsequently arranged it for solo piano, and later orchestrated it as a ballet. The work contains a waltz, schottische, pas de deux, two-step, hesitation tango, and galop.
Nocturne was composed in 1959 and subtitled 'Homage to John Field'. The neo-romantic harmonies and filigree writing create a dreamy work of a tender and pleasing nature. Ballade was completed by Barber in 1977, and after such a long gap, he took almost nine months to complete a short work. It came at a time when Barber was depressed, and the works reflects that mental state.
The Performer: Daniel Pollack was born in Los Angeles in 1935, and began his piano studies at the age of four. At the age of nine he made his concert debut playing with the New York Philharmonic, before going to the Juilliard School of Music. He later won an award to study in Vienna where his teachers included Wilhelm Kempff. He was a prizewinner in the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, his performance of the Barber Piano Sonata being issued on Melodiya. He has since toured the world as concert and recital soloist, and is currently professor of piano at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
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BARBER: Piano Sonata, Op. 26 / Excursions / Souven...