In my post of January 22, I introduced the idea of a beneficent genie who grants me the ability to play any three piano sonatas of my choosing. One would be the Prokofiev sonata – the 6th – that I featured on that post, and another would have to be today’s selection, the Sonata Op. 26 by Samuel Barber. This sonata was composed in 1949, and was premiered by Vladimir Horowitz early in 1950. I was introduced to it in 1964 in a recital by Van Cliburn, and later purchased the extraordinary recording by Horowitz presented here.
In his notes to the Horowitz recording, the noted pianist, critic, and author Samuel Chotzinoff writes as follows:
Samuel Barber is an acknowledged master craftsman. The classical sonata form is sympathetic to him and he knows how to put it to modern use. Yet, notwithstanding his knowledge, his proficiency and his modernism, he remains an unabashed romantic. And it is his romanticism which, I believe, attracted Horowitz and made the great pianist the ideal interpreter of the Sonata, Op. 26. Apart from its romantic subject matter, the composition as piano music seems tailor-made for Horowitz. It bristles with splendid difficulties; and the final fugue, so instrumentally conceived, so bold and outspoken, invites the pianist to storm the heavens. Any fugue today may be looked upon with suspicion as an outmoded form, quite inappropriate for the expression of the modern scene. But the fugue in this sonata, though it dazzles the listener as a brilliant and intricate tour-de-force, is more than a sensational essay. It comes as a logical climax to the emotions generated and exploited in the preceding movements. And it is optimistic music, brightly affirmative, a kind of healthy credo. It is music that in Goethe’s time would be called “yea-saying.”
It is a great pity that there is no video of Horowitz playing this sonata. There is no question that video enhances a great performance, and there are other recordings of this sonata on YouTube that include video that I could have chosen. None, however, can match the power, technical command, and expressiveness that Horowitz brought to this sonata, and I am tempted to say that none ever will. Horowitz played this piece as if he wrote it, and when I listen to his performance, it is with an awe that approaches reverence.