PERSICHETTI: Piano Music (Serenade No. 2. Poems (exc’pts). Variations for an Album. Sonatinas Nos. 1-6. Serenade No. 7. Parades. Little Piano Book. Parable XIX. Little Mirror Book. Four Arabesques).

PERSICHETTI: Piano MusicSerenade No. 2, op. 2. Poems, op. 4, nos. 4, 6; op. 5, no. 10. Variations for an Album, op. 32. Sonatinas Nos. 1-6, opp. 38, 45, 47, 63, 64, 65. Serenade No. 7, op. 55. Parades, op. 57. Little Piano Book, op. 60. Parable XIX, op. 134. Little Mirror Book, op. 139. Four Arabesques, op. 141. Three Toccatinas, op. 142. Brahms’ Organ Prelude and Fugue in A minor. Donald L. Patterson, piano. EDUCO 3235/3236 (two cassettes: 38:43; 36:43). Available from Educo Records, P.O. Box 3006, Ventura, CA 93006.  

An essential aspect of Vincent Persichetti’s compositional personality might be described as a view into the inner world of the child, with its characteristic impishness, tenderness, innocence, and silliness, as well as its access to a free, non-linear imagination. Throughout his life, Persichetti devoted much of his music to capturing this world, often in pieces that are relatively easy to play and hence, manageable by young musicians. Not surprisingly for a composer whose most concentrated, characteristic efforts were focused on the keyboard, many of these easier pieces are for piano. In fact, of some 35 pieces for piano solo, among them twelve sonatas and other virtuoso works, many are quite simple in design and execution.

Most “teaching pieces” are of chiefly utilitarian value; even respected “serious” composers, when venturing into this realm, tend to compromise their natural languages and customary aesthetic approaches somewhat. However, in the case of Persichetti, these pieces are integral to and aesthetically consistent with the rest of his creative work, revealing tremendous musical and psychological sophistication despite their economy of means. Therefore, these two cassettes, recently issued by a company whose primary market is the piano pedagogy community, are of considerable value to the serious listener who seeks to broaden his understanding of one of America’s most deeply rewarding composers: on them are sixteen works (plus one arrangement) for piano solo, all within what are considered “elementary to intermediate” levels of difficulty.

The pieces included here span a period of 50 years, from the terse and mischievous Serenade No. 2, written at age 14, to the lithe and graceful Three Toccatinas, dating from the composer’s final decade. Despite their brevity, most of the selections themselves comprise a number of shorter pieces, often of less than a minute in duration. (Those who are familiar with Persichetti’s music in general are aware of his fondness for tiny, epigrammatic pieces. In this regard, his ability to convey a great deal of musical meaning through not much more than a handful of notes calls Webern to mind. I’ll leave it to the listener to observe who provides the richer result.) The most extended, formally elaborate piece is the Parable XIX, a developmental fantasy that includes fragments of American folk-song within a dissonant textural web. Overall, the pieces cover a stylistic spectrum from diatonic modality in triadic harmony to disjunct non-metrical, atonality, with many points in between. While some might be within the range of the talented first-year student, others require a fairly well-developed technique.

Probably the most important music here is the Little Piano Book of 1953, a collection of fourteen easy pieces of uncommon charm and beauty that has become a classic of its kind. Its significance within Persichetti’s output is suggested by the fact that his sole opera, The Sibyl, composed 23 years later and possibly his magnum opus, is based almost entirely on themes from the Little Piano Book. Something of a sequel, the Little Mirror Book appeared in 1978. Here the pieces — five in all — are each composed in strict mirror-writing, i.e. the left hand and right hand play in exact opposite directions at all times. It is amazing that music composed according to such a strict scheme can be so delicate and expressive. Even the three Parades, probably the easiest pieces of all, reflect the composer’s distinctive essence.

The six Sonatinas all date from the 1950s, Persichetti’s most fertile and most accessible decade. The first three are a bit more demanding and more musically acerbic (No. 2 is a special favorite of mine), while Nos. 4, 5, and 6 are more obviously pretty and very easy to play.

Donald L. Patterson, co-author of Vincent Persichetti: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1988; see Fanfare 12:6, p. 422), is on the piano faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. He does a respectable job with the music, playing it with evident affection and enthusiasm (although I do wish he hadn’t taken the Sonatina No. 2 at such a runaway tempo). Sound quality of the tapes is somewhat dull and muffled; these are clearly not audiophile cassettes. Nevertheless, I recommend this set highly as documentation of some important and rewarding music not likely to be encountered elsewhere on recording. (The set may be purchased for $20 from the address given above.)