Barber began writing his lone piano concerto in March of 1960. By the end of the year, he had completed the first two movements, but he didn’t finish the third movement until just two weeks before the premiere, in September 1962. Whatever his struggles with procrastination may have been, Barber wrote a magnificent concerto. He received his second Pulitzer Prize for it in 1963. The first was in 1958 for his opera Vanessa.
The soloist at the premiere was the late John Browning, who ultimately made two recordings of this concerto. The first was in 1964 with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and it was that record that served as my introduction to this piece. The liner notes to that album, which I still have, include the following description that Barber wrote for the premiere:
“The Concerto begins with a solo for piano in recitative style in which three themes or figures are announced, the first declamatory, the second and third rhythmic. The orchestra interrupts, piu mosso, to sing the impassioned main theme, not before stated. All this material is now embroidered more quietly and occasionally whimsically by piano and orchestra until the tempo slackens (doppio meno mosso) and the oboe introduces a second lyric section. A development along symphonic lines leads to a cadenza for soloist, and a recapitulation with fortissimo ending.
“The second movement (Canzona) is song-like in character, the flute being the principal soloist. The piano enters with the same material which is subsequently sung by muted strings, to the accompaniment of piano figurations.
“The last movement (Allegro molto in 5/8), after several fortissimo repeated chords by the orchestra, plunges headlong into an ostinato bass figure for piano, over which several themes are tossed. There are two contrasting sections (one ‘un pochettino meno’ for clarinet solo, and one for three flutes, muted trombones and harp, ‘con grazia’) where the fast tempo relents, but the ostinato figure keeps insistently reappearing, mostly by the piano protagonist, and the 5/8 meter is never changed.
I would particularly like to draw your attention to the beautiful second movement, which to me is the embodiment of the word ‘wistful’.
This video was recorded in 2002 during the final round of the first Helsinki International Maj Lind Piano Competition. The Finnish Radio Orchestra is conducted by Hannu Lintu. The pianist, Albert Tiu, a native of the Philippines, finished in fifth place in that competition, and considering the all-around brilliance of his performance, I can’t help but wonder about the top four finishers. They must all be phenomenal. For the record, they were Alberto Nosè (Italy), Kotaro Fukuma (Japan), Pierre Mancinelli (France), and Juho Pohjonen (Finland).
Second and Third Movements