RAVEL: Sonatine. La tombeau de Couperin (piano version). Gaspard de la Nuit / John Browning, pianist / Sony/RCA 886446381886
A few days ago I heard a pretty good performance of Gaspard de la Nuit on the radio, played by then-18-year-old pianist Conrad Tao. Looking it up online the next day, I found it to be pretty good but just missing something, so I went “Gaspard-shopping” on the Naxos Music Library. And lo and behold, I ran across this recording, which I hadn’t even known existed.
The performance was breathtaking.
It’s not just that Browning had the technique for the score, which in itself is important—Gaspard is probably Ravel’s most difficult piano piece and one of the hardest in the standard repertoire. It’s that he had the ability to play with nuance while blissfully running through those impossible two-handed passages that sound more like piano four hands. Other pianists I’ve heard simply do not present as much light and shade, color and drive as Browning did, and that even includes a contemporary recording on Columbia by Charles Rosen. Browning just had something special in his playing, and he carries the day in this unbelievably great performance.
What a strange vindication for a man who, when he studied at Juilliard, was constantly overshadowed by his fellow-pupil, a tall, lanky Texan named Van Cliburn. Cliburn, of course, went on to with first prize in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in the late 1950s, thus making him a symbol of American excellence during the cold war. This helped to propel his career as a pianist well beyond the parameters of most Americans of his time. A big seller on RCA Victor, he was considered to be “up there” with their two international stars, Horowitz and Rubinstein.
So Browning made his living playing mostly the music of Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart. He was a miniaturist to Cliburn’s grand epic playing. Then, in 1962, he gave the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, which he later recorded with both George Szell and Leonard Slatkin (the latter won a Grammy). This led to his playing more of Barber’s piano works; other contemporary composers also came to him with their wares, but Browning found very few to his liking. Then he died unexpectedly of heart failure at age 69.
Thus a recording of Ravel’s works was something of an anomaly for him. Judging from the cover and number sequence, this definitely came out during the Hippie era (1968), but honestly, I don’t even remember it. It probably didn’t sell well because 1) it was outside of his normal repertoire, 2) it wasn’t promoted heavily (he wasn’t Cliburn), and 3) there were many other Ravel “specialists” whose recordings sold better than his. All of which is a shame.
Browning is also superior to nearly every other pianist I’ve heard in the well-known Sonatine and the lesser-known piano version of Le tombeau de Couperin. Interestingly, his tempi are generally faster in these works than other pianists, which makes his attention to the most minute detail all the more impressive.
I simply cannot recommend this album highly enough. It shoots straight to the top of interpretations of these three works.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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