Born into a musical family, Browning began to study the piano at the age of five. His mother had studied with the great Theodor Leschetizky and his father was a violinist with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. In 1945 the family moved to Los Angeles where the twelve-year-old Browning worked with Lee Pattison (who had been a pupil of Schnabel) and Rosina Lhévinne, who invited him to study with her at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. However, Browning decided first to study English, history and philosophy at Occidental College before going full time to the Juilliard in 1953. Straight away he began winning awards: the Hollywood Bowl Young Artists Competition and the Steinway Centennial Award in 1954, and, a year later, the Leventritt Award. He gained second prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (Vladimir Ashkenazy won first prize) and, in the same year of 1956, made his orchestral debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Dimitri Mitropoulos. This was the start of a successful career, leading to further engagements in the late 1950s with conductors of the stature of Eduard van Beinum and William Steinberg. Browning’s recital debut was given at New York’s Town Hall in 1958. The debut with Mitropoulos was also the catalyst for Browning’s association with Samuel Barber, as the composer had been at the performance and was so impressed that he invited Browning to his home to play through his Piano Sonata. When, in 1962, Barber was asked to compose a work for the opening of New York’s Lincoln Center celebrations, he conceived a piano concerto with Browning as soloist. Written to suit Browning’s virtuoso skills, it became indelibly linked with him. After the debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf he performed it on countless occasions and recorded it twice, with George Szell in 1964 and Leonard Slatkin in 1990. In the wake of Van Cliburn’s success in Moscow in 1958, Browning toured the USSR and much of Europe in 1965 with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and was invited to return to the USSR and Poland in 1967.
By the 1970s Browning found, as some performing artists do, that he was beginning to lose his sense of purpose and his artistic sensitivity. He examined his purpose in life and the whole process of performing, later devoting time to studying the music of Liszt, as well as the bel canto style of singers and the way it can be applied to playing the piano, as Chopin had recommended. During his sixties Browning reduced his concert schedule from around 100 performances a year to eighty; he continued to record sporadically and to practise for five or six hours per day.
Browning was popular as a teacher of master-classes, which he gave at Northwestern University and the Manhattan School of Music. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Ithaca College in 1972 and Occidental College in 1975.
Browning’s repertoire was based around the Russians, Mozart, Beethoven, French Impressionists, Chopin and Liszt. He recorded for many labels, his first LPs being made for Capitol. A debut recital disc was followed by one of Bach and Beethoven, and around 1961 he recorded Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand with Erich Leinsdorf and the Philharmonia Orchestra. During the 1970s Browning recorded an excellent cycle of all the Prokofiev concertos with Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for RCA, recordings which were issued on compact disc by Testament in 2005. An account of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Seiji Ozawa and the London Symphony Orchestra for RCA betrays the influence of Horowitz, and on a disc of Chopin études, also for RCA, some of the pieces incline more toward exercises than music. There is a fine solo disc of Ravel from 1967 with clear readings of Gaspard de la nuit and Le Tombeau de Couperin.
In the mid-1980s Browning recorded major works for Delos, including Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor. The best of the Delos discs is the Rachmaninov, the performance of the sonata being grand and declamatory. Browning does like to tinker with the text, though this is not unusual in this work with the precedent of Horowitz, but to completely rewrite the final section of Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata is unnecessary, and will be unacceptable to many. An interesting disc of the Barber Sonata for Piano and Twenty-four Preludes by Richard Cumming (written for Browning) appeared on the Phoenix label. Although the recorded sound is harsh and the piano out of tune, this is an enjoyable disc. Browning’s association with Barber led him to record the composer’s complete works for solo piano for the Music Masters label, which also recorded him playing thirty sonatas by Scarlatti. However, Browning’s main Barber recording remains the première of the Piano Concerto written especially for him, mentioned above. This was made with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in January 1964, but a second recording was made for RCA in 1990 with Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra at a time when Slatkin was recording much of Barber’s orchestral output. More Barber was recorded in 1991 when Browning accompanied Thomas Hampson and Cheryl Studer for Deutsche Grammophon in a two-disc set of songs. The Gramophone magazine said that Browning ‘…sounds not only like a man who has yearned to accompany these singers in these songs for a long while, but like a considerable accompanist indeed, matching Hampson’s dynamic range and the expressive flexibility of Studer’s seamless line with resourceful sympathy.’ Regrettably, this two-disc set, and many other recordings of Browning, are not at present available.
A 1997 RCA recording of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman and Ralph Kirshbaum received high praise, one review referring to the performance being ‘…beautifully balanced, especially in terms of John Browning’s poised piano playing’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).