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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDA67469
Recording details: April 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: August 2004
Total duration: 19 minutes 14 seconds

'Hamelin's performance of the Concord Sonata is in the truest sense transcendental, his facility allowing him a cool poetry and lyricism inaccessible to other, more strenuously employed pianists … Hyperion's sound is immaculate and Hamelin's disc is a valuable addition to his unique, tirelessly evolving discography' (Gramophone)

'Reviewing the Mayer, I described Aimard's recording as 'of unmatchable vividness and panache'; but I must now transfer both the description and the recommendation to Hamelin' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Marc-André Hamelin, a pianist of phenomenal virtuosity and insight, never misses a trick. Pierre-Laurant Aimard's Warner account was perceptive enough, but Hamelin characterises the four movements with even greater imagination and encompasses the 42-minute span and unconventional trajectory with complete control' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Hamelin's account is more a mystical blending of textures than a studied delineation of them, with a ravishing soft tone and an almost childlike relish of simpler music' (The Independent)

'Hamelin's virtuosity has to be heard to be believed. There are places in both scores that almost defy what two hands are capable of. Yet Hamelin plays them as though he were unaware of their wrist-crippling certifiability' (Classic FM Magazine)

Piano Sonata, Op 26

Allegro energico  [7'13]
Adagio mesto  [5'22]

Other recordings available for download
Angela Brownridge (piano)
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The opening movement of Barber’s Piano Sonata does not firmly establish its home key of E flat minor until the final pages. A pillar-like dotted rhythmic figuration colours its main themes – the first hammered out in gnarly ascending and descending minor seconds, the second taking wing through more lyrical, arpeggiated gestures. The composer freely employs twelve-tone rows, not so much as organizational devices as much as to keep certain textural patterns fresh in the ear, such as the transition into the second theme. Towards the end of the exposition Barber thickens the plot by introducing a supporting character in the form of a declamatory repeated-noted motif. The latter plays a crucial and decisive role as the development section increases in propulsion and heft, while commanding a gentle yet firm presence as the movement winds down.

Like all successful magic acts, the scherzo’s nimble demeanor and myriad sleights of hand manage to delight the senses while keeping the audience slightly off balance. Such ‘tricks’ include flirting back and forth between double and triple metre, playful bitonality, and an occasional, sardonic glance down to the piano’s bottom range from the music’s high-register perch. If the few minutes required to play the scherzo feel over before they begin, the Adagio mesto’s four-plus minutes could seemingly go on for ever, and we’d be none the wiser. The composer’s biographer Nathan Broder called this spacious and elaborate lamentation ‘the most tragic of all of Barber’s slow movements’. Here Barber’s use of tone rows within accompanimental figures and to enhance the music’s melodic trajectory truly comes into its own. One wonders if the movement’s imposing passacaglia structure was a response to Barber’s intense immersion in Bach at the time of composition (he had recently purchased all forty-seven volumes of the Bach-Gesellschaft).

The fugal finale, however, aspires to instrumental as well as compositional virtuosity, inspired, no doubt, by the singular abilities of Barber’s friend, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who had premiered the composer’s Excursions for piano solo in 1945. Barber had first conceived the Sonata as a three-movement entity concluding with the Adagio mesto, but Horowitz suggested that the work would sound better if he made ‘a very flashy last movement, but with content’. To Horowitz, Barber was ‘one of the few American composers who knows how to write for the piano’. In turn, Barber admitted that his piano writing was influenced by Horowitz’s playing, and his teenage studies with the redoubtable Isabelle Vengerova reinforced his own predilection for the Russian style of pianism with its wide range of colors, subtle tempo fluctuation, and huge sonorities – all quintessential Horowitzian qualities.

Although the Sonata (commissioned in the autumn of 1947 by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary) was not specifically written for Horowitz, the pianist’s highly acclaimed premiere performances during the 1950–51 concert season quickly established the work in the international repertoire, and not just with younger musicians. The late American pianist Mary Louise Boehm had prepared the Sonata for its Amsterdam and Paris premieres, and brought a copy to her teacher Walter Gieseking. ‘He asked to try it out’, she recalled to this writer, ‘and was fascinated by the music, realizing immediately that it was a great piece. He read through the first three movements just like that. But when it came to the Fugue he got stuck!’ Small wonder that one of the Sonata’s adoring fans, Francis Poulenc, declared the sparkling finale ‘a knockout’.

from notes by Jed Distler © 2004

Other albums featuring this work
'Barber: Piano Music' (CDH88016)
Barber: Piano Music
MP3 £2.50FLAC £2.50ALAC £2.50Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDH88016  Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service   Download currently discounted

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