John Browning Edition III = BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “The Tempest” – John Browning, piano – MSR Classics

by | May 4, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

John Browning Edition III = BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “The Tempest” – John Browning, piano

MSR Classics 1122,  72:43  (Distrib. Albany) ****:

This previously unissued pairing of two Beethoven keyboard staples features John Browning (1933-2003), here in a particularly rare large-scale work, the Diabelli Variations from 2 September 1965 recorded Austin, Texas.  The technical demands of Beethoven’s magnum opus for the piano holds no terrors for Browning, whose articulation of the mammoth spans and glistening runs show off Browning’s suave, albeit hard, sonic patina. Always the sense of plastic architecture is evident, as in the molding of phrases and contours of Variations 7-9, where in No. 8 only the basic waltz-pulse is evident. The Ninth Variant mocks the agogics and turns Diabelli’s four-square tune into a staccato bagatelle, further elaborated in stretto at the No. 17 Allegro.  The sheer speed and cleanliness of detail make us wish Browning had bequeathed us a set of the Beethoven concertos.  The richness of harmonic depth in the modal Variation 12 Un poco piu moto had me coveting Browning in the last three sonatas. The Grave e maestoso Variation 14 generates Beethoven’s favorite paradox, dynamic stasis. Browning’s opening of No. 20 is a hair’s breadth away from Op. 110. Lest we forget, there are any number of mocking, playful moments in these grand catacombs, and Browning’s wiry eloquence in No. 22, utilizing Mozart’s Notte e giorno faticar is only the tip of a rather intricate, witty iceberg. Few can clarify fugal passages like Browning, so we can be grateful for this rare sound document; would that a Brahms Handel Variations were in these archives!

The D Minor Sonata gives us no date nor source.  But Browning’s grasp of Beethoven’s method, to move from amorphous chordal structures into the most demonic of dramatic developments, makes Browning a natural Beethoven exponent. The hard, clarion-like sonority of Browning’s piano still can yield to the soft, meditative side of Beethoven’s complex character. The plaintive Adagio, with its undercurrent of tension and restrained violence in the massive bass harmonies, communicates no end of pathos and wistful melancholy.  The Allegretto finds Browning in an uncompromising, volcanic temper, taking the moto perpetuo in huge gulps and febrile runs. Even Browning’s liberal use of pedal and few moments of legato won’t simmer the music down any; every sforzato sends us back toward the abyss. As Dionysian a reading as has been my apprehensive pleasure to hear – ferocious!

— Gary Lemco

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