AMERICAN WORKS FOR PIANO DUO
AMERICAN WORKS FOR PIANO DUO · Georgia and Louise Mangos (pn) · CEDILLE CDR-90000 069 (74:45)
PERSICHETTI: Concerto for Piano, Four Hands. Sonata for Two Pianos. BARBER: Souvenirs.
FENNIMORE: Crystal Stairs. DIAMOND: Concerto for Two Solo Pianos
This is a very worthwhile program of American music for four hands-at one piano and at two-played with some flair and gusto by the Mangos Sisters, a duo based in Chicago. Though these readings may not be definitive representations of the better known pieces by Persichetti and Barber, they are among the more successful efforts, while the lesser known Diamond and Fennimore works are presented advantageously so that their considerable virtues are made evident. I reviewed a similar recording (Koch International 3-7213-2H1) several years ago (Fanfare 19:5). That 52-minute issue featured the Malinova Sisters in marginally more fluent renditions of the same works by Persichetti and Barber, plus an additional 3-minute tidbit by the former composer.
I have discussed the Persichetti and Barber works at length in previous reviews (see my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com), so I will try to abbreviate my comments here. Vincent Persichetti’s Concerto for Piano, Four Hands (1952) is one of the composer’s masterpieces and, certainly, one of the greatest works in the repertoire of this medium. In one multisectional movement, the Concerto subjects its thematic material to a fantastic display of virtuosity-both compositional and pianistic. With an attenuated sense of tonality and a relatively dissonant harmonic language, the Concerto can seem initially somewhat cold, dry, and forbidding. However, with greater familiarity its clear developmental logic, lucid textures, and exuberant rhythmic drive join together in engendering a sense of profound joy, as well as an ecstatic realization that one has experienced true compositional genius. I have often said that Persichetti’s music comprises an entire expressive universe. This work is one of its richest statements.
There have been only half a dozen or so recordings of Persichetti’s Concerto, and all must be measured against the standard set by the composer and his wife-both virtuoso pianists-in the performance released by Columbia Masterworks some 50 years ago. Their reading looms as a benchmark that seems virtually impossible to match. In any case, I’ve been waiting and listening and it hasn’t happened yet. Each time a new recording comes along I take out the old LP-and I am not typically one who is wedded to my initial experience of a work-but … there is just no comparison. No other duo-pianists have yet been able to summon the clean, dry punch, the crisp, light touch, the transparent textural clarity, or, most of all, the precise pacing and pulse that convey the requisite sense of vitality. The Mangos (Mangoses?) offer a fair and competent reading-better than many, but one whose articulation is a tad heavy-handed and whose pacing is a tad sluggish.
Persichetti composed his Sonata for Two Pianos in 1940, before he had arrived at his mature language. In this ten-minute work tonality is even more attenuated, and the harmony is even more dissonant, although the expressive content is far less ambitious. The result is a little awkward and ungainly. Here the Mangos Sisters succeed in drawing real meaning from a piece that has stymied most duos who have attempted it.
Samuel Barber’s ballet suite Souvenirs has been appearing on recording with increasing frequency during the past decade or two, in all its various guises: the original one-piano, four-hands version, as well as the subsequent arrangements for one piano, two hands, for two pianos, and for orchestra. Something of a whimsical deviation from the composer’s characteristic vein of melancholia, Souvenirs is an excursion into stylized triviality, executed with grace, charm, and elegance. Although its aesthetic weight is slight, it can achieve an exquisite effect if rendered with the appropriate refinement and panache-qualities not often in evidence. Here the Mangos’s tendency toward a sort of slapdash heavy-handedness is almost fatal. Most successful among the piano versions is the reading by John Browning and Leonard Slatkin (RCA Victor 60732-2-RC), which would be ideal if not for the self-defeating, break-neck tempo taken in the “Two-Step.”
The advantage of this new Cedille release over the Malinova Sisters on Koch is the addition of the Diamond and Fennimore works. I have never found the music of David Diamond to be as distinctive in its mode of expression or as consistent in its appeal as that of his finest contemporaries (e.g., Barber, Schuman, Persichetti). Although some of his work is satisfyingly realized, much of it has always struck me as awkward and overwrought afterthoughts on materials and usages associated with the more prominent figures of the time-in fact, not unlike the early music of Persichetti (his exact contemporary), such as the Sonata for Two Pianos discussed above. Diamond’s Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (1942), however, is actually one of his more engaging efforts. Despite some congested textures, it proceeds from a vigorous, Stravinskian opening, through a lively, energetic finale, with an attractive slow movement in between.
Joseph Fennimore, now 64, belongs to a later generation than the other composers represented on this disc. I have previously had only incidental exposure to his music, and had no reason to expect anything remarkable. But I found his 1981 piece Crystal Stairs quite compelling. Inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, Mother to Son, it purports to express the resentful longing of a poor woman for the life of a glamorous starlet. Its inclusion on this program is fortuitously appropriate because, in a sense, the music reflects the elegant milieu evoked by Souvenirs, but viewed from without. In their program notes the pianists as well as the composer comment on the 11-minute work’s suggestions of ragtime as well as traces of “show biz glitz.” Fennimore states, “Crystal Stairs is tailored to suggest a garment from the past; it is costume music,” while the Mangoses write, “From the opening measures … one feels a Busby Berkeley production is about to begin. The raw energy of its initial explosion of sound is just what we expect to hear in a big-budget Broadway production.” But I feel that these comments sell the piece short, presenting a rather shallow view that fails to acknowledge its deeper reverberations. Though the work draws on the vocabulary of vernacular music, this material is refracted through a complex, multi-level interpretive process. The result is more substantial than the descriptions might lead one to expect, and rather unsettling in its effect—in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse.