MSR MS 1121, 70:26 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
Volume II of the John Browning Edition includes selected items from various college and overseas venues, 1950-1964, recorded both in mono and stereo. The major entry is Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, which had its debut in 1949 Havana with Vladimir Horowitz. Browning himself figured significantly not only in the dissemination of this eclectic work, but also in the advocacy of the composer’s Piano Concerto, Op. 38; I attended the pre-debut lecture-discussion given by Browning and Barber for the convocation of New York Philharmonic scholarship winners. A brief introduction by Browning at this Denver performance of the Sonata (21 November 1950) has his speaking of the work’s use of 12-tone technique as part of its essentially “Romantic, tonal” construction. In the course of its knotty, vehement, and lyrical outpourings–which include a brilliant fugue for a last movement–we can hear allusions to Scarlatti and Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata. The Adagio mesto proceeds with the somber sobriety of a post-Schoenberg dirge. Browning’s typical hard, scintillating patina prevails. The opening Chopin C Minor Etude derives from the same Denver recital, and it plunges forward in a torrent to win Claudio Arrau’s envy.
The colorist in Browning emerges first in his touching Chopin D-flat Nocturne, played slowly and with much attention to interior details. The two Debussy pieces credit no source, but they convey a hearty sensuality and plastic line. Browning introduces Debussy’s whirling Fireworks, clearly an encore. Of the Rachmaninov group, only the finely etched, limpidly transparent G Major Prelude claims a known venue, the American Theater in Brussels (8 September 1958), which it shares with Rimsky-Korsakov’s manic bumblebee. The C Major Etude-Tableau from Op. 33 already has that nostalgic pulsation and heartthrob the composer favors. Browning lets the thunder reign in the E-flat Minor Etude, Op. 39, No. 5. The C Minor, Op. 33, No. 3 projects an eerie, melodramatic air – a touch of Roger Corman – though its second half yields to tender wistfulness. The two Spanish items, Falla’s sultry Andaluza and the rippling, bright colors of Albeniz’s El Puerto from Iberia, derive from a recital at the College of William and Mary (9 October 1964). The concert ends with a B-flat Minor Prelude (Denver 1950) by the California composer Francis Henriks, a stentorian and lyrical work of Rachmaninov aspirations, with a bluesy rhetoric that breaks out into rapid, swirling passages, a perfect vehicle for the digital prowess Browning could command at will.