Compared to his Adagio for Strings, the Piano Sonata of Samuel Barber is not so well known. But it was the main feature of Leon McCawley’s recital at the Conservatoire. The concert – the second of three in the recital series of Birmingham’s International Piano Academy – also celebrated the bicentenary of the births of Schumann and Chopin.
Composed in 1949 and premiered by the great Horowitz a year later, Barber’s sonata could not be more different from his most famous work. Angry and dissonant, it’s a chaotic musical picture which ranges from demonic possession to heartfelt anguish. And broad in its composition too, with Barber drawing on a host of twentieth century innovations: extreme chromaticism, serialism and jazz harmonies.
It required great direction from the soloist to navigate through its complexities, McCawley playing with great muscular power and a wonderful evenness in loud passages. The sonata makes for an exhilarating concert experience, possibly one difficult to reproduce in a recording. Treating an appreciative audience, McCawley played encores by Schumann, and Chopin’s Minute Waltz … eighty seconds for the record.