Magazine article Musical Times

In Memoriam: John Browning

Magazine article Musical Times

In Memoriam: John Browning

Article excerpt

Among the select body of distinguished piano concertos composed since the Second World War, Samuel Barber's Pulitzer Prize-winning contribution to

the genre, commissioned for the inaugural concert of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City in 1962, has proved to be one of the most popular. This was in no small measure due to the persuasive and determined advocacy of the American pianist John Browning, who was entrusted with the taxing solo part at its world premiere, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf.

The work became Browning's signature piece: he went on to perform it in concert halls across the globe more than 400 times, and he was playing it in Europe only last year, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He twice recorded it. His first account, set down for CBS (now Sony Classical) in 1964, with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, has rarely been out of the catalogue, usually coupled with Isaac Stern's classic rendition of the Violin Concerto; his second, for RCA, with Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, was issued in 1991, and deservedly won a Grammy award.

Barber and his pianist were ideally suited. The spiky yet romantic rhetoric of the concerto's outer movements provided a showcase for Browning's cool-headed virtuosity, whilst the slow movement's bittersweet lyricism highlighted his capacity for projecting an elegantly sculpted line. He later recorded Barber's solo piano works, including the challenging Sonata written for Horowitz, as well as an award-winning two-disc survey of the complete songs for DG, with Cheryl Studer, Thomas Hampson and the Emerson String Quartet.

Browning was born in Denver to a musical family. His early years were marked by piano lessons at five, an appearance - in Mozart's 'Coronation' Concerto - with the Denver Symphony Orchestra at ten, a move to Los Angeles at twelve, lessons with the Schnabel pupil Lee Pattison , and a formative encounter with the legendary pianist-pedagogues Rosina and Josef Lhevinne, with whom, in 1950, he enrolled at New York's Juilliard School.

At Juilliard, Browning's fellow students were a roll-call of transcendental post-war American pianism: Byron Janis, Gary Graffman, Malcolm Frager, Leon Fleisher and, above all, Van Cliburn, who for a while was to outshine them all when he won the gold medal at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. …

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