Barber: Solo piano works

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WORKS: Solo piano works
PERFORMER: Leon McCawley (piano)


Samuel Barber once wrote about the daunting spectacle of ‘those black and white keys in a row, staring at me from across the room’. Yet he never abandoned the piano, and Leon McCawley’s near-complete collection allows us to follow the composer’s endeavours across 50 years. From airy trinkets of adolescence, we pass through wartime Americana, to the muscular post-war Sonata. After that, only music of nostalgia and retreat: a Chopinesque Nocturne; a hard-fought Ballade, written at the bitter end of a once-charmed life.

McCawley recorded most of this repertory on a Virgin Classics CD of 1998. Subsequently he’s thought more and played more, and his responses have partially deepened. The 1977 Ballade is the best beneficiary, given a worried grandiloquence that stretches the work’s significance beyond its modest span. But McCawley is too reserved in Barber’s lighter fancies (a blow for the flimsy Souvenirs), and faces technical challenges (the Sonata’s fugue) with more expertise than panache. Somm’s recording – a little fuzzy – doesn’t help.


Aged recordings by Vladimir Horowitz and John Browning still offer the best Sonata, with Hamelin a modern rival. But this CD can be cherished for McCawley’s Ballade, and for gathering Barber’s piano output into one place. Geoff Brown