Pianist JOHN BROWNING
A Conversation With Bruce
Most of the interviews that I've been able to do are necessarily efficient. I arrive at the appointed hour at the hotel or backstage, we have the conversation, and though it is relaxed and pleasant, it is the only time my guest and I spend together. Sometimes we stay in touch over the years, and some guests I have interviewed more than once. A few of the times the situation has been such that the composer or performer has come to my home, and those chats are often followed by our going out for a meal - usually pizza!
On my travels to both coasts and Canada, I have been their guest a few times and consider myself very fortunate to experience the hospitality of musicians I have known of and respected. Two that stand out in my memory include a breathtaking view of the Cascade Mountains outside of Seattle, and meeting a composer who was living in a New York City apartment once owned by Caruso.
My encounter with John Browning was a rarity in that I drove to the home of a patron where he was staying while engaged for performances. This particular location was in the Chicago area, but rather far out in a lovely wooded setting with trees and birds which reminded me of a much more nature-filled environment than was typical for this urban lifestyle. We met and chatted for the microphone, and then spent another couple of hours with their mutual friends having food and more lively conversation. The early fall day was already cool enough to have a fire going in the fireplace, and the dozen of us gathered around and sat in chairs and on the floor of this rustic room. All in all, a longer and more informal gathering than any other time in my career. Needless to say, a special memory for me that I treasure.
Here is that recorded conversation from 1995 . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You travel all over the world and come to new and different pianos each time. How long does it take before the piano is yours?
John Browning: The piano may never be mine, but to find out whether it’s good or bad takes about 3 seconds. Then it’s just a question of figuring out how best to deal with it. Some pianos you can never really come to terms with. Sol Hurok used to say, “For a bad singer there’s never a good hall.” One teacher of mine used to say, “You have to learn how to play on any piece of furniture.” Even though it may bother you and even though it may disturb you and even though you may not get the artistic results that you want from a bad piano, you just have to learn to deal with it.
BD: Are the percentages pretty good these days?
JB: It depends. The combination of the fact that the pianos coming out of the factory are not always as good as they should be and the fact that the local technicians may not always be as good as they should be, occasionally we do run into problems. But there are many, many good pianos throughout the country and throughout Western Europe. Some of the best pianos I’ve seen have been in the Far East. They have Hamburg Steinways that are absolutely wonderful, and they have wonderfully trained technicians.
BD: Is it just because they’re used less?
JB: No, they just seem to know how to take care of them better.
BD: Are you able to travel with your own technician?
JB: No. Those days are long since gone when Rachmaninoff and Paderewski and that generation were able to have a private railroad car and the piano went with them in the car, and they had a cook.......
BD: Well let me change it just a little bit. Do you know enough about it to be able to tell the local technician exactly what you would like?
JB: Franz Mohr, who used to be the head technician of Steinways in New York, said, “You know it’s very interesting. You musicians use one language and we use another.” He told me that de Larrocha would say to him, “You know it’s a little nyeeah,” and he said that he had to learn what that meant. [See my Interview with Franz Mohr.] Musicians are notoriously unverbal about those things. You just have to kind of say the instrument needs this or that and hope that the technicians will know what to do. If what you’re asking is do I know technically what to do, the answer is no.
BD: Is there any time that you would want to change the way the piano is set up for the repertoire that you’re playing, or do you want your piano to be your piano no matter what?
JB: If I’m traveling, there’s almost no way that I could change the piano in time. Some orchestras in some halls have what they feel is an ideal situation. They have one brilliant piano and one less brilliant piano, and hopefully you’ll prefer the less brilliant piano for Mozart and the more brilliant piano for Prokofiev, and if they’re in good shape that does sometimes work.
BD: Does that ever enter into your decision as to what you’ll play in which cities?
JB: Only if we know, and we don’t always know, of course. We all joke that you’ll get the tiniest piano in the world when you’re playing Mozart, and you’ll get the dullest piano in the world when you’re doing the Rachmaninov 3rd, when you need the brilliance.
* * * * *
BD: Let’s get on to happier things. From the huge array of repertoire that has been written for the piano, how do you decide what pieces you are going to play and what pieces you are not going to play?
JB: We start out a career with a certain number of pieces our teacher told us to learn. We may have entered competitions with them and so forth, then after that it’s a funny business. Nobody knows exactly how it works. Sometimes a conductor will ask you to learn a concerto and you’ll say yes, and then you’ll learn it and play it. Sometimes a little light bulb goes off in your head and you’ll say, “Gee, I’d like to learn that concerto,” so you’ll learn it over the summer and it seems to fit and you put it on your list and there you are. With solo pieces I don’t know that any artist knows exactly how that works. I remember I played almost no Liszt for many, many years and all of a sudden I was thumbing through some volumes looking for something, and there was the B Minor Sonata staring me in the face. I started reading through it and it clicked with me. It made sense to me. It said, “Learn me,” and I fell in love with it. I think if I had done it ten years earlier, that piece would’ve just said no, don’t even go further, don’t even try.
BD: It was right for you at the time.
JB: Yes. There’s a time when a door opens in a certain kind of repertoire and none of us have ever been able to figure out how that happens, but there’s just a time when you sort of have that instinct that it’s the time to learn a piece. Maybe it’s a piece you’ve been afraid to learn for a long time, a piece that you’ve stood in awe of, or a piece that - so often is the case - you hear that many pianists try to play very well and they don’t play it very well, so you think no one can play that piece well. Then all of a sudden it speaks to you and you think to yourself, “Well if all of these great artists that I’ve heard don’t play it very well, then I won’t play it very well either, but at least I want to try.”
BD: Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?
JB: No, of course not.
BD: But you still strive for it?
JB: We strive for the best we can do at the moment. Of course we don’t think that way because we do aim for perfection, but when the performance is over, there are times where we think that is as close as I’m going to get to perfect, but you realize in the back of your mind, that the image you have in your head, the quality of sound in the performance you have in your head, you’re never going to get there, all the way.
BD: Do you reach different destinations of close each time?
JB: Yes, perhaps. As you get older, you realize that you can’t get it all in any one performance. Certain performances will have certain strengths, and in order for those strengths to come forth you maybe have to sacrifice something in another area. That’s one of the troubles, because then if somebody tells you, “I wish it’d had a little more THIS,” you realize that maybe the week before it had that, but then it didn’t have the thing it had tonight. So it’s part of being human, I suppose.
BD: Who is right in judging this? Is it the pianist, is it the audience, is it the conductor, is it the critic?
JB: Well that’s just it. The critic obviously thinks he’s right in judging it. I don’t know that the audience thinks that way. It either hits them or it doesn’t, or it hits some of them and it doesn’t hit others. The performer sometimes can be fooled. Many times we walk offstage and we think that it was awfully good, but maybe it wasn’t as good as we thought it was. Other times people walk offstage and say, “Oh that was like climbing Mount Everest. I was really struggling,” and sometimes that produces a really good performance. We are not always the best judges of our own performance. We are vulnerable to what other people tell us.
BD: You shouldn’t listen to other people then!
JB: Everybody does. I remember going to a concert of Jenny
a wonderful singer who was a close friend of mine, and she got
by a New York Times critic the next day. I don’t remember who
was, but it was an awful review and I called Jenny and said, “Awww,
you sang so wonderfully,” and she said, “My dear, I never read
Then, in about four minutes she started quoting the review verbatim, so
yes she had read it. The only person I know that never read his reviews
was Erich Leinsdorf. After he had been crucified every week by the
of the Boston Globe, he just really made a pact with himself
never opened a paper. If someone wanted to show him the wonderful
he’d read it, but he never went out and looked for them, and he said he
was a much happier man. [See my Interviews with Erich
BD: You worked a lot with Leinsdorf. Was he a particular joy to work with?
JB: Yes, we did the premiere of the Barber Concerto together. That was in 1962, his first year at Boston. I was under contract with RCA and he was under contract with RCA in Boston, but unfortunately, RCA did not want to record the Barber. The Boston Symphony was scheduled to do all the orchestral works of Prokofiev, and of course the five piano concertos came into the picture, so they asked me if I would record them all. I said I’d only played one. This is what you were asking before about what one learns. The recording company asked me to please learn the other four, and I said yes. So we recorded two a year.
BD: Are you pleased with those recordings?
JB: In hindsight I think yes, pretty much so.
BD: Even 30 years later they stand out.
JB: Well, if they were Mozart, I would’ve changed more perhaps...
BD: Talking about recordings, do you play the same for a microphone as you do for a live audience?
JB: I think it would be dangerous. I suppose everyone has a different thought on recording, but you have to record as if an audience is there. Because the whole business of recording is less personal, it's less direct than a live performance, so you almost have to give a little more in a recording to get the same thing that a hall would get.
BD: You mean in sound or in interpretation?
JB: Just the excitement. For example, one of the things we all learn in making some recordings that didn’t come out very well, is you really have to supervise the editing because sometimes those who edit are too conscious of trying to get exactly the same tempo from take to take when what you really want is slight variation in tempo. They will end up picking the takes that seem to be the most even in terms of tempo, and you get a very dull performance. One of the things I’ve learned to do is be there when they do the editing and to say, “That’s too even, let’s find a take that’s a little different tempo.” But they say it won’t match, and I say let’s check it and see, and it works. Nobody plays consistently, evenly, the same tempo all the time. Your heart beats a little faster. There are little things that make it more exciting that way.
BD: How much is the technique in the fingers and how much is the inspiration in the heart?
JB: The problem in recording is that you’ll do a take which sounds absolutely wonderful musically, but it’ll have two wrong notes in it that you can’t excise. So you have to do the take over. Then you’ll get a perfect take that won’t have quite the same feeling. That’s what’s heartbreaking about recording. You often have to throw away takes that were musically just what you wanted but had one little slip. It may not even be you. It may’ve been a sound in the room. Very few recording chambers are absolutely soundproof. It may be a creak in the peddle or it may be that something went wrong with the mic.
BD: Everything beyond your control?
JB: That’s it. In a hall you’d get away with it. There’re many times I’ve done recordings where the engineer says there’s a little whine in the peddle. A change in the peddle can be heard in the newer systems and we can’t let that pass. I say, “What difference does it make?” and he says, “Believe me we can’t let it pass,” but in a hall you’d never hear it.
BD: Of course in a hall it’s one shot through and done.
JB: That’s right, and sometimes you get a better performance that way. In recording, that’s what we always have to keep in mind. So what I have learned to do in my old age is to do long takes. Just record the whole thing several times in a row, and then hope we’re covered.
BD: Then when you intercut, at least you’re cutting into some kind of performance.
JB: You're cutting into a live performance, and that really works better. In most respects I think the recording industry has learned the wisdom that progress is going backwards. We’ve gotten rid of studios, and are going back to recording in live halls, using a much less complex miking system.
BD: You’re actually recording in performance a lot.
JB: We’re recording a great deal more in performance and we’re going back to recordings that were made in the 30s in terms of the way the recordings were done, and I think the results are really better.
* * * * *
BD: How do you divide your career between solo and concerto performances and chamber music?
JB: To some extent that’s just the way the season goes. No season ever goes according to plan, so you might have one season where all the dates are orchestral and another season split fairly evenly between recitals and orchestras. The chamber things just happen to pop up. This year I had two chamber things in New York.
BD: Is there a particular joy in playing chamber music?
JB: Oh I love it. My parents were chamber musicians, so I was brought up with it. There’s nothing worse than playing chamber music with people you just aren’t compatible with, but there’s nothing more wonderful than playing chamber music with people that you’re really in tune with.
BD: Is it the goal to try and make a concerto performance like a chamber concert?
JB: It should be. The problem that young performers so often have in concerto work is that they don’t know the orchestra score very well. They know just enough to keep it together more or less, but they really don’t know what the orchestra is doing. They’ve just practiced their part, and maybe a second pianist will come and play through the piece with them once or twice, but they really haven’t looked at the orchestral score. It’s important. I don’t care whether it’s Tchaikovsky or Mozart or Brahms, it’s important for the soloist to know the score very well so that you have that feeling you’re playing chamber music, even if it’s a very brilliant concerto. Chamber music doesn’t always mean soft or intellectual. One of the most bravura pieces in the world is the Ravel Trio which is also a stinker when it comes to the piano part. But it’s the most perfect chamber music that you can imagine. So it’s very important that a soloist feel he’s fitting into a whole, and not that he’s Mr. or Ms. Big, and the orchestra is just the chauffeur helping you to get from one place to another. That doesn’t work. I’ve been doing a lot of Brahms concertos this year, and really the piano is equal to the orchestra. In fact the pianist is part of the orchestra.
BD: It should really be a collaboration and not an accompaniment?
JB: Not at all, not at all.
BD: Especially as you are maturing in your career, are there times when you have to teach the conductor how to do some of these works?
JB: Oh yes, and there were times, and probably still are and will be times, when the conductor teaches me. I learned a lot from conductors such as Leinsdorf and Szell. I had three glorious weeks, of glorious coaching in Switzerland with Szell in just about everything written for the piano. Ten years later, I still think, “THAT’s what he meant!”
BD: What about working with the composer? You’ve done that with Barber.
JB: Yes, with Barber, and Richard Cumming has written some things for me. [See my Interview with Richard Cumming.] It’s very interesting because sometimes I’ve been generally pretty frank with the composer, and many times I’ll say, “I don’t get this yet. Does it need to be rewritten or is it just me?” Sometimes the composer will say, “Well whaddya want?” The classic case in point was with the Barber Concerto. When we did the first run through of the first movement for Leinsdorf, he listened to it, and at that time the first movement ended pianissimo. Leinsdorf turned to Sam and said, “Oh Sam, you can’t do that.” Sam said, “But I wanted to just merge into the slow movement. I can do what I want.” But Sam thought about it and three days later he submitted a loud ending. I still have a copy of the pianissimo ending, and I think, in the final analysis, Leinsdorf's judgment was correct and Sam knew it. If Sam had really not approved of it, he’d have said, “No way am I going to change that. You’ll have to do it the way it is.”
BD: I just wonder if maybe in the first performances, when the work is not known, if a slam bang ending is more helpful, but later on the quieter ending would be even more effective.
JB: In the original autograph of the Liszt Sonata, which is in the Morgan Library in New York, the last three pages are sealed with sealing wax. The Morgan people opened them up, and the original ending is loud and unbelievably vulgar. It is the worst clap trap ending. Liszt knew that was no good, and he changed it. The new ending is wonderful, and he sealed it up. Sometimes there are two ways to do it and either way is okay.
BD: Are the Richard Cumming and the Barber the only new works that you've done?
JB: Those are the only ones that I’ve done on commission. I don’t play a great deal of new music. I did some Copland, and one of these days I keep promising myself that I’ll learn and record the Copland Sonata which, I think, is an eclectic masterpiece.
BD: What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the piano either as a solo instrument or in a concerto?
JB: Composers have been very nervous about writing for piano because it is essentially a 19th century instrument. Most contemporary composers of the period from 1940 to 1980 were using the piano as a percussion instrument. I don’t think they were that comfortable with the piano, and the pianists weren’t comfortable with the way the music was coming out. I’ve had a lot of composers say to me, “The Barber Concerto was so good none of us wants to even touch the form after that.” Now that we’re in a neo-romantic period again, suddenly Sam Barber is no longer the pariah but the prophet of the new thinking in composition. So we may get a lot better piano stuff coming out. But I think the piano has to be written for as essentially an orchestral melodic instrument. It is a percussive instrument but it mustn’t sound as percussive as it really is.
BD: Does it please you to know that you’ve been keeping the Barber alive all these years for its renaissance?
JB: Oh yes, but that was pure luck. I remember all those Ford Foundation concerti that were supposedly a perfect match between the soloist and the composer, and they were performed maybe twice or three times and then forgotten. I was very lucky to have this concerto. It was a huge success from the very beginning.
BD: And you’ve recently recorded it again?
JB: I re-recorded it with Slatkin. [See my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin.] It’s a case where we did some things much better than in the other recording with Mr. Szell, and some things may be not quite as good. In the final analysis I think both recordings have merits.
BD: The one recording was for 1960 and the other is for 1990.
JB: Yes, and they were done in very different halls. The lyric sections of the recording with Slatkin were better than the one with Szell.
* * * * *
BD: Do you do any teaching of piano?
JB: I have always done a little teaching. I’ve done master classes a great deal, and I’ve been at the Juilliard School for the past three to four years. I have one or two students a year and that's it.
BD: What advice do you have for the younger pianists?
JB: It’s a tough business, and I think it’s getting tougher. Tthere’s much less room in the middle than there used to be. There’s still room at the top, but it’s harder and harder for musicians to make a living. Teaching jobs are drying up because universities cannot afford the staff they used to. There are a lot of unemployed people driving cabs in New York who have Ph.D.s. At faculty meetings we used to think we’re no longer turning out performers, we’re just turning out teachers to be teachers. Now we’re beginning to say are we turning out teachers for a job market that doesn’t exist. It used to be that if you had a good degree from a good music school you could get a teaching position almost anywhere, but not any more. What I would say to kids that I’m teaching is, “You’d better love it and feel a compulsion to do it more than anything else because you’re probably going to have to suffer a little bit.”
BD: So we’re back to the days of suffering for our art?
JB: No. In our age, a few top people are paid fabulous fees, but this is not going to last very much longer. Before the glitz got going, about 1970, musicians weren’t paid very well. You went into music like you would the priesthood. You did it for the art and you did not expect to get rich. The idea of getting rich as a performer in classical music is very recent, and I don’t think it’s going to last very long.
BD: My old teacher, who was a bassoon player in the Chicago Symphony. He recently retired after 45 years, and he said he originally thought he’d play with the symphony for about 10 years and then go get a teaching job where there was a pension. He was lucky to be able to stay because of the increases in salary of that orchestra.
JB: Exactly. The job market is rough today, and it’s much harder for kids today to start out. There are a lot more competitions that they can enter, but because there are so many competitions the value of the competitions is less.
BD: Are there still a couple of top competitions that are the ones to win?
JB: The Leventritt, which I won, doesn’t exist anymore. The Brussels, which I judge every now and then, still has very high standards, but some of the big young talents are not coming out of the competitions. Having been on juries, seeing some of the results makes me wince when I realize that my number nine turned out to be the number one pick of the jury. Sometimes I agree, but you have to realize that people listen very differently.
BD: What do you listen for when you’re on a jury?
JB: I get split myself, when I realize how difficult it is. Let’s say a very gifted contestant has a slight memory lapse at the finals. For a kid, that shouldn’t happen. You might accept it from an older artist, but for a kid that shouldn’t happen. You begin to realize how little things will start pushing you toward a safe candidate, just like politics. You get into that position, and pretty soon you get enough people on the jury who pick someone who’s safe, who didn’t do anything very wrong, who didn’t get anybody too upset, and you may end up giving the award to the dullest performer of the bunch. That’s the big danger.
BD: Are we going to get into a cycle where it’s always the third and fourth players in the contest that are making the big careers?
JB: It may be, actually. That’s often been the case when you realize that Michelangli was number seven in Brussels the year that Gilels won, and Rubsinstein was number two in the Chopin competition in Warsaw.
BD: If Michelangli was number seven when Gilels won, would he have been number one the next year or the previous year perhaps?
JB: Could be. Maybe the performer isn’t in a good frame of mind one year, or maybe the jury is out. There are just so many incomparables. I always tell people to go ahead and enter the competition if they can really say, “I’m not going to be deeply affected one way or the other, I’m not going to go out and kill myself if I don’t get it and I’m not going to think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread if I do get it.” It’s a useful thing if there’s money or some good concerts. The one thing I don’t like about the new competitions is that they give too many obligatory concerts afterwards.
BD: I would think, though, that those would be what the contestant would want.
JB: But maybe the contestant isn’t ready yet. There are many times when you are forced to give a first prize. The jury will often talk amongst themselves afterwards and say yes this contestant was the best of the bunch but not quite ready for a career.
BD: Why can’t they make that the second prize then?
JB: There are some competitions where you cannot do that, where you have to give a first prize. But to make obligatory concerts where you may not yet be ready and you are exposed too early, then things begin to fizzle. That’s a mistake. I really am in favor of money and optional concerts.
BD: What about this new contest where you don’t know you’re being judged, where they go around and listen to your work in several performances?
JB: That's the Gilmore. I’m not sure it’s going to work. It might work well for youngsters, but I don’t know yet.
* * * * *
BD: Let me ask the great big question. What’s the purpose of music?
JB: My mother was a wonderful pianist, and when she was dying she had the radio on close to her bedside. We kept her at home, and we had it on a classical station. She would point and say, “That’s my religion”. Perhaps it was her religion. Music is what we can’t say with words. In many cases it goes deeper than words. It’s a philosophy, it’s a religion, it’s the human experience. I don’t know what it is, but the world would be a hell of a lot poorer without it. I don’t think we can define what it does for us any more than we can define what love does for us. It’s just one of those things we know that is important in a way that we can’t even measure, and we can’t really put our finger on what it does. It’s like looking at a sunset. What value is a sunset except…
BD: ...it’s hugely enriching.
JB: Yes, and you can’t say why it’s enriching but it is. It’s
a little like what the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court said when he
said, “I can’t tell you what pornography is but I know it when I
it.” Music is a little bit that way. You can’t define what it is. You
when it’s good and you know when it moves you and you know when it’s
to you. You can’t live without it.
BD: One last question. Is playing piano fun?
JB: Yes and it gets more fun as you get older. I remember there was a wonderful time when I adored Rudolph Serkin, and I think he was very fond of me. Rudy had a wonderful way of being a good friend and supporter of people who were not exactly in his vein. He didn’t go out looking for other Rudolph Serkins. He could love the playing of Horowitz just as much as he could love the playing of Adolph Busch, his father-in-law. Rudy and I were both playing in Rochester. I was playing with the symphony and Rudy was playing a recital. It was one of those flukes when I got a wonderful review and Rudy got panned. We had said to ourselves we were going to have breakfast the morning after, and we giggled about the reviews. Then Rudy said, “In spite of that bad review, it really gets easier as you get older. You really get rid of a lot of the junk that got in your way.” You keep simplifying, and the hardest thing to do is play something elegantly and simply. How many of us bang our foreheads against the keys and think, “I’ve been playing this piece 40 years and it’s only now that I see where the top of the phrase is!” You think, “How dumb can you get?” It gets easier, and you do get less self-conscious about yourself. You get down to the message. You get a little lesson in love with being the messenger. Serkin made another wonderful remark which I’ve never forgotten. He said, “The more you worry about playing the piano, the harder it is to play the piano. The more you worry only about the music, and the piano is just the instrument at hand, the easier it is,” and that’s absolutely true. The other way, you let the piano dominate you. When you get to the point where the message becomes the most important, then you dominate the piano and it gets easier
BD: Are you the boss or is the composer the boss?
JB: I always remember Samuel Barber because he said, “I never expect the artist who’s playing my music to say, ‘How do you want it.’ What I’m interested in is what my music does with the artist. It’s the catalyst. There is no one way.” He was a close friend of Horowitz, who taught him a great deal about the piano. Ideally each one respects the composers. Obviously the composers’ work has to be the most important, but the artist is the voice, the messenger, and it has to come out right through the messenger and with the messenger’s conviction or it won’t work. A good composer should think about the hall; he should write for the hall, for the artist, for the public. He shouldn’t write as if it’s just something to be handed down like a written manuscript, because it doesn’t come alive. It’ll only come alive at the hands of the recreative artist. The hard thing in the performance, the hardest thing in interpretation, is to get to the point where you feel you understand the composer and you feel you can also be yourself. Then you aren’t being slavish to the composers. It’s not good enough to just assume that Schubert wrote forte here. You have to ask, “WHY did he write forte?” If you know that, then you will be much freer in what kind of forte you do. There is a point where you feel you are intimate enough with the composer that you have a pretty good idea of what the composer wants, but at the same time you’ll allow for the fact that maybe the composer goes through phases. You go through the three autographs of Chopin and there are many changes.
BD: You have to figure out which one you want to play?
BD: Thank you for all of your artistry for all of the years and for many years to come.
JB: I feel very lucky to be in the business because there are
not many people who love their work as much as musicians do. We’re very
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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.
John 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 Lhévinne, 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.
Yet Browning’s progress was hardly less distinguished. Like Van Cliburn he won the Leventritt Competition in New York, and he came second in Brussels at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition in 1956, when the winner was Vladimir Ashkenazy. That same year he made his professional debut, in a concert, with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos, attended by Samuel Barber, whose concerto soon secured the young pianist’s reputation.
But whereas his more glamorous colleagues proceeded to infirmity, seclusion or death, and despite the routine, if tiresome, comparisons with Van Cliburn, Browning endured, not least because his obvious virtuosity was always subservient to purely musical considerations. His fortitude and assiduous practice underpinned a career which spanned five decades, and was prosecuted in virtually every capital city, with most of the world’s major orchestras. During his heyday he gave over a hundred concerts a year, at which he played everything, from Bach and Scarlatti to modern works, and during the final days of the LP era made many recordings, including the five Prokofiev piano concertos under Leinsdorf. But his speciality was the romantics – especially Chopin, Rachmaninov and Liszt, whose Sonata enjoyed an especially searching account under Browning’s dexterous fingers.
During the 1970s Browning was a less visible presence on the concert platform, but during the last decade he effected something of a comeback, with no apparent waning of powers. A highlight was a three-concert sixtieth-birthday celebration he gave at the Lincoln Center in 1993–94, when he was described by one critic as ‘a true master musician in a world today occupied largely by incredible techniques’.
John Browning: born Denver, 23 May 1933; died
Wisconsin, 26 January 2003.
© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at a private residence near Chicago
the pianist was staying on October 13, 1995. Portions were used
WNIB in 1998 and 2000. This transcription was made early in 2007
and posted on this website at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.