Chuffed to again appreciate John Browning’s 1968 recording of Chopin’s Opuses 10 & 25 Etudes for RCA and finding it even finer than I remembered – link below to a YouTube posting – I have now pursued the box of all his LPs and CDs for that company, 1965-96. (Thanks Karen and Berlin!) In doing so, and given this set was released in May 2017 (and remains available), I have inaugurated a new Column category, “Back Catalogue Reviews”.
Apart from the Chopin, now restored to me in physical format and sounding great, Browning (1933-2003) also recorded a seamless and shaded Beethoven Diabelli Variations; a ravishing Ravel disc (a sensitive Sonatine, a crisp and shapely Tombeau de Couperin, and an atmospheric Gaspard de la nuit, culminating in a suitably devilish ‘Scarbo’); and, staying in France, there’s a Debussy recital issued for the first time, Pour le piano, both Books of Images, and Estampes, all played with impressive agility, searching insight and seductive touch. (I heard no reason why this recording should have been held back.) And Browning is just as distinguished in Book II of the Préludes, all moods, volumes and tempos judged to a nicety, ending with a stunning ‘Feux d’artifice’, fireworks glittering in the night-time sky. Also, Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals, the Boston Symphony conducted by Seiji Ozawa with Garrick Ohlsson as pianist colleague. Musically excellent, narratively a little less so if lively, but Melissa Joan Hart appears only at the beginning (replicating the original release?) and anyway she’s on a separate track. A word for Jules Eskin, BSO principal cellist back then (1992), and his quite lovely assumption of ‘The Swan’.
German piano music is also afforded a coupling of highpoints, Beethoven’s Opus 110 Sonata and Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques (without the so-called ‘posthumous variations’ that Brahms reinstated). Browning gives intellectually enquiring accounts that also communicate directly with the listener through – for the Beethoven – attractive phrasing, graded dynamics, feistiness (second movement), sublime expression, fugal fecundity and a victorious conclusion; and – for the Schumann – a mercurial approach: romantic, volatile, tender, triumphant.
With orchestra … Samuel Barber wrote his Piano Concerto for Browning. He recorded it twice; both versions are here – 1964, for Columbia Masterworks with George Szell and his Clevelanders; 1990, with Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony; terrific piece, two terrific performances (the Szell coupling, William Schuman’s contemplative/middle-section-active twenty-minute A Song of Orpheus, with cellist Leonard Rose, retained, and welcome) and, sonically, both belie their sixty years; and with the St Louis version is Barber’s delightful six-number Souvenirs (piano/four hands) co-scripted by Slatkin, every bit a match for Browning. With Ozawa, this time the LSO, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – arresting horns at the opening – Browning rather pummelling the piano part, unfortunately, barnstorming most of time, a brightly lit, widescreen production that does pianist and piece little credit, but amidst so much excellence, one dud is fine, for, also LSO, this time with Christoph Eschenbach, 1996, there’s Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello (‘Triple Concerto’) – Pinchas Zukerman, Ralph Kirshbaum – a spacious and thoughtful account of music that perhaps requires special pleading and certainly gets it here, the three soloists characterful team-players well-balanced with the orchestra, essaying a rapt slow movement and a generous way with the polonaise Finale; in the coda Browning uses the sustain pedal, as Beethoven requests, something that rarely happens. Back to Boston, this time with Erich Leinsdorf – 1965, 1967, 1969 – for Prokofiev’s five Piano Concertos spread over three CDs and including the B-side to Concerto 5, some of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera music, collected as Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, including ‘Mack the Knife’, the eight selections performed as edgily and satirically as you’re ever going to hear, played brilliantly and recorded explicitly. As for its Concerto companion, in five pithy movements, Browning, Leinsdorf and the Bostonians make a charismatic team, technical challenges overcome, music made, a similar story for the previous four works, virtuosity serving the scores, the musicians’ rapport evident throughout. The recorded sound is somewhat bright and congested, but these accounts have staying power, especially Concerto No.4, for the left-hand, given a compelling outing.
So, at a stroke, Chopin-inspired, John Browning’s complete RCA albums (with LP artwork preserved) is now part of my library, and I recommend it for yours. RCA Red Seal 88985395032 (12 CDs).