John Browning was one of the most remarkable American post-war pianists, so talented that theNew York Times called him ‘as close to perfection as one would hope to hear in this world’. Despite the overwhelming popularity of his fellow American pianist Van Cliburn, Browning shined as a pianist, eventually earning two Grammy Awards. He was well-known for his collaborations with American composer Samuel Barber and his reserved and intelligent interpretations of the works of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Browning belonged to the generation of celebrated American pianists that included Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis and Van Cliburn.
Browning was born in Denver, Colorado on 23 May 1933 into a musical family. His father was a violinist and his mother was an excellent pianist, having been trained by the Russian pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, who also taught Paderewski and Schnabel. After having made his debut with the Denver Symphony Orchestra at the age of 10, his family moved to Los Angeles in 1945. There he spent two years at Occidental College and continued in his mother’s footsteps, receiving piano instruction of the Russian tradition from Joseph and Rosina Lhévinne. Browning moved to New York in 1950 to study at the Julliard School upon Lhévinne’s invitation. While at Julliard, he found himself in the same class as Van Cliburn. He also studied for a time with Lee Pattison.
Browning met composer and pianist Béla Bartók and violinist Joseph Szigeti when they visited his family’s home. He was able to watch his mother turn pages for Bartók.
In 1954, Browning won the Steinway award, which proved to be the first of a long list of awards. This was followed in 1955 by his prize at the Leventritt competition (one year after Van Cliburn) and the Silver Prize in 1956 at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. In fact, these international prizes ensured his celebrity status before Van Cliburn’s victory in 1958 at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Despite Van Cliburn’s popularity, Browning remained in demand as a pianist, giving as many as 100 concerts per year. Later, in 1965, Browning enjoyed his own success in the Soviet Union.
At Browning’s 1956 debut with the New York Philharmonic under Dmitry Mitropoulos, Samuel Barber was in the audience. Greatly impressed and inspired, Barber approached Browning, asking him to play through his piano sonata for Vladimir Horowitz. Later, Barber also composed a Pulitzer Prize-winning Piano Concerto for Browning to play at the opening of Lincoln Center in New York in 1962. Browning went on to make two recordings of the concerto, one just two years after the premiere with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and another one in 1991 with Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor. The latter recording earned Browning his first Grammy Award (for best instrumental soloist with orchestra). Another collaboration with Barber earned him his second Grammy Award in 1993, for his recording of Barber’s solo piano works on MusicMasters.
Browning seems to have suffered from a bit of a burn-out in the 1970s. Some also claim that this was a mid-life crisis. In any case, Browning gave less performances, claimed that he ‘had grown ragged from overwork’. He experienced a bit of a renaissance in the 1990s, reclaiming his career and convincing harsh critics worldwide of his abilities. In May 2002, Browning gave his final performance, by invitation, at the United States Supreme Court after having made his final public appearance the previous month.Despite an affection for the music of Barber, Browning did not find many other contemporary American works to be of his liking, though he continued to explore the repertoire. In addition to his performances of Barber’s works, he is remembered for his ‘towering technical ability always at the service of intelligent interpretation’, along with his ‘cohesive sense of purpose in music’ in works by composers such as J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Mozart, Haydn Chopin and Liszt. Among his recordings, the Chopin études remain superior. Also worthy are his recordings of Scarlatti’s sonatas, Beethoven’s triple concerto and a collection of Barber’s songs, together with Thomas Hampson and Cheryl Studer. He also performed music by Ned Rorem and Richard Cumming.
In addition to music, Browning adored his dog. His British Agent, Patrick Garvey remembers Browning as a charming and twinkle-eyed man who took his Papillon Mimi, and her predecessor Tyler, with him everywhere. He also enjoyed playing harpsichord for himself and often discussed ‘the place of morality in musical performance’, explaining, ‘there are choices you make, such as whether you use a finger legato or the pedal to hold an inner voice, or how closely you follow the composer’s phrasing indications…you can cheat, but as I get older I cheat less’.
Throughout his career, Browning made four tours of Russia and was a regular guest at American summer festivals including Ravinia, Tanglewood, the Blossom Music Festival, Wolf Trap and the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York.
In his final season, he cancelled a number of concerts due to extreme back pain. John Browning died at the age of 69 on 26 January 2003 from heart failure.