Movement 1: Allegro energico
Movement 2: Allegro vivace e leggiero
Movement 3: Adagio mesto
Movement 4: Fuga: Allegro con spirito
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