Arms and the Man

Samuel Barber, Op. 38, Piano Concerto

Once again I've grappled with this score tonight.  On the surface it is everything a mid-century American piano concerto ought to be:  It even won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1963.  Most would agree that the celebrated performance by the original pianist John Browning with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is a worthy listen.

The middle movement is wonderful, a Canzone of sweet and sad affect.  Everyone understands what they are doing here:  a romantic, moonlit movement with a bit of Stravinskyian cross-relationships.  The chromatic orchestral interlude at fig. 4 (3'10") is Barber at his best.  Pianistically, the work is playable and charismatic, especially the Thalbergian "third hand" at fig. 5 (3' 55"). Near the end, the harmony even references some jazzy Gershwinesque extentions without ruining the mood.

The problems lie in the first and last movements.  What is Barber's folklore when writing fast and energetic music?  Like so many 20-century composers, he can be caught between idioms.  The first movement's proud declarations are undercut by foursquare phrasing. If this style was more European in affect, the phrasing could be shaped by the performers into a classic antecedent/consequent idiom.  Instead, each new section of "moderately modernist Americana" lands with a graceless thump. 

It's still a pretty good movement, though, and certainly couldn't be played better than by the virtuoso John Browning here, especially in those thrilling cascades of wide-spaced octaves.

The third movement begins excitingly with a vamp in 5/8.  Until fig. 8, (58") this is some of the best film music I've ever heard.  I'm not kidding!  If this were the original score to the latest action thriller, I'd stand up in my seat and cheer.  Not sure if it's right as concert music, though, and what happens in the slow sections of the rondo are unforgivable, especially fig. 18, con grazia (2' 30").   Oh, the agony! The Tchaikovsian triangle heard signalling the start of this theme returns (after pointless bombast) in gruesome syncopation (4' 15"), an orchestrational misstep that compounds the crime.


UPDATE:  James Primosch responds