Browning Samples 2 Centuries Of The Piano Repertory

Academy Hears Flesh-and-blood Music, Without Histrionics

January 17, 1992|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

One of America's finest was presented in concert last week at Mahan Hall on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy.

John Browning is a front-rank American pianist who has remained on top of his game since his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1956.

Browning is one of those exalted performers who has made his markacross the entire spectrum of the piano repertory. His affinity for the great virtuoso works of the Romantic period is well known; his recorded anthologies of Liszt and Rachmaninov are much admired.

Samuel Barber's impassioned piano concerto was written for Browning, and the pianist has been associated with the work since its 1962 premiere, which he gave. A generation of listeners learned the work from his old Columbia recording with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Browning's new recording of the Barber with Leonard Slatkin conducting has just been nominated for a Grammy, by the way.

It is indeed a feather in the cap of the academy's fledgling Distinguished Artist Series that such an accomplished musician was brought to Annapolis. With works by Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Ravel on the program, this concert shaped up as a major artistic event, and I was not disappointed.

The 58-year-old pianist retains the power and sensitivitythat so appealed to Samuel Barber and to great conductors such as George Szell, Erich Leinsdorf and Eugene Ormandy, who began engaging Browning as soon as Rosina Lhevinne turned him loose from her Juilliardstudio.

A Mozart sonata might be a bit overshadowed by the pyrotechnics of Liszt and Rachmaninov, but not when the sonata is the K.332in F major and not when the pianist is John Browning.

Browning's Mozart is boldly conceived and appealingly energetic, while at the same time, it retains the elegance and proportion that make Mozart . . . er, . . . Mozart.

K.332, like so many of the sonatas, is remarkably symphonic, and Browning's 88-key orchestra brought out those unmistakable woodwind solos, violin passages and vibrant tuttis that dot the score. Browning provided flesh-and-blood, unminiaturized Mozart.

But there was balance and clarity throughout. Even the arpeggiatedruffles and flourishes of the left hand were as distinctly articulated as one could want. Often, the lines of the first movement ooze like mud. Not here.

Browning is also a master of rubato. The expansions and contractions of tempo in the second movement were natural and convincing, while the warmth of Mozart's songfulness was movingly conveyed.

In sum, were Browning to release a disc of Mozart sonatas, I'd snap it up immediately.

Browning has recorded the Rachmaninov B-flat minor sonata, and his feeling for this complex knucklebuster is obvious.

Here, Browning assiduously follows the long Romantic line with a sure-handedness that makes other accounts of this lengthy work (taken here in the composer's original 1913 version) seem episodic and rambling by comparison. A pianist could fly off the handle 100 times in the first movement alone.

Yet for all the torrential pizzazz, Browning keeps things in proportion. Dense harmonies remain coherent. The percussive elements never sound clangy or forced.

When passion isn't confused with hyperactivity, the sonata sounds like beautiful poetry instead of the war-horse that all piston-fingered kid pianists feel they have to bang through to impress competition judges.

The same was true for Liszt's super-charged "Mephisto Waltz."

This concert was also notable for the obvious rapport that developed between the pianist and his attentive, appreciative audience.

MahanHall's on-stage may look like a backstage, but its stately, semi-circular confines were conducive to first-class music-making.

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