COPLAND: Works for Piano Duo

COPLAND Works for Piano Duo • Arianna Goldin, Rémy Loumbrozo (pns) • PHOENIX PHCD-154 (73:46)

Dance of the Adolescent. Music for the Theater. El Salon Mexico (arr. L. Bernstein). Billy the Kid. Rodeo (excerpts; arr. Gold and Fizdale). Danzon Cubano. Danza de Jalisco

Rather like Maurice Ravel, also a master orchestrator, Aaron Copland often made performable piano versions of his works prior to—or, in some cases, after—scoring them. As with Ravel, the purpose and value of these piano versions of works that seem virtually inseparable from their orchestral realizations are open to question. Yet, again as with Ravel, the piano versions often seem nonetheless to provide satisfying and illuminating listening experiences—though, unlike Ravel’s, Copland’s approach to sonority is often anti-pianistic. Why these piano reductions are so effective is hard to say: part of the pleasure involves the textural transparency that piano reductions often provide, but there may be other, less obvious, factors. However, for whatever reason, recordings of these 20th-century orchestral classics in piano versions continue to proliferate.

This recent release features the husband-and-wife piano duo of the Latvian Arianna Goldin and the French Rémy Loumbrozo, who met while they were students at the Juilliard School. Their program, which proceeds in chronological order, includes both better-known and lesser-known pieces from the Copland canon. 

First is Dance of the Adolescent, composed in Paris in 1924 for the often-cited but rarely-heard horror-ballet entitled Grogh, much of whose music was reworked into the Dance Symphony. Later on, the composer arranged this portion for two-piano performance. The music is murky, dark, and thickly textured—unrecognizable as a work of Copland’s, except for one or two small phrases. But it is interesting as a point along the way of the composer’s stylistic evolution, and exciting enough in its own right.

The better-known Music for the Theater was written the following year, and is generally held to represent the composer’s early, uncompromising style, when he was attempting to create a uniquely “American” sound by embracing jazz elements and subjecting them to “classical” treatment. Its title is intended to suggest the “dramatic” potential of the music. However, from today’s perspective, the five-movement suite is neither forbidding, nor does the jazz aspect stand out as a distinct element. Rather, it exudes what might be identified as a generic “Copland/Bernstein sound.” This is said to be the first recording of this one piano, four hands version of the piece.

El Salon Mexico of 1936 is generally considered the work that ushered in Copland’s enormously successful “populist” phase. Its ubiquity and general acceptance can easily lead one to overlook some aspects that are really quite remarkable: Consider, for example, the fact that the inspiration for the piece was really nothing more than Copland’s visit to a nightclub during a trip to Mexico that lasted only a couple of months. In essence, the piece is truly a musical picture-postcard of the most superficial sort. Then consider, say, Respighi’s Roman pieces, which are so often maligned as shallow musical postcards: here was a composer who really knew Rome intimately! Yet Copland, as a mere tourist, was able to project an infectious exuberance with such freshness and spontaneity that, despite the essential frivolousness of the piece, it withstands virtually endless repetitions without becoming stale. Much of its appeal can be attributed to the composer’s brilliantly kinetic application of rhythmic asymmetries and irregularities. On top of that, consider that such a masterpiece of orchestral color is thoroughly captivating in this arrangement for the relatively monochromatic palette of two pianos, made by the 21-year-old Leonard Bernstein in 1939.

Actually, El Salon Mexico is not an isolated instance, but, rather, the best-known example of what might be termed Copland’s “Latino” vein—a vein that ultimately led the way to the “Dance at the Gym” from Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957). In these pieces, as in his “American populist” pieces, Copland took melodic fragments from representative folk or popular tunes, and subjected them to his own sophisticated rhythmic and harmonic treatments. Instead of homogenizing these melodies, as so often happens when composers attempt to absorb such tunes into a conventional, tonal harmonic framework, Copland’s treatment lends them a lively vividness that always seems appropriate to the spirit of the music, rather than incongruous with it. Cut from much the same aesthetic cloth as El Salon Mexico is the shorter Danzon Cubano, composed in 1942. If one can get past the annoying mental interference from the similarity of its primary refrain to the 1950s hit song, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” one can appreciate this as another irresistible gem of its kind, heard here in its original two-piano version, which, incidentally, was first performed in public by the team of Copland and Bernstein. Also in this vein is the latest piece on the disc, Danza de Jalisco, originally the second of Two Mexican Pieces composed in 1958 for performance at the Spoleto Festival. (A third piece was added in 1971, and the work was re-christened, Three Latin-American Sketches.) The two-piano version of Danza de Jalisco was made in 1968. The body of this exciting piece is based on the same rhythmic pattern that Bernstein used in the song, “America.”

The only music on this recent Phoenix release that is not terribly effective on the piano is Billy the Kid—at least, aside from the section called, “In a Frontier Town,” which has the rhythmic zest that seems to translate so well on the piano. But the rest is too simple in texture to benefit from the clarity of a piano arrangement. This suite is taken from the original 1938 ballet score for two pianos, and includes one section, the pretty waltz, “Billy and his Sweetheart,” not heard in the familiar concert suite. Incidentally, in view of the number of Copland-Bernstein connections noted here, let me add that the finale from Bernstein’s music for the film On the Waterfront may be the most brazen example of appropriation by one composer of another’s work known to me (see concluding section of Billy the Kid).

The two episodes—“Saturday Night Waltz” and “Hoe-Down”—from Rodeo were arranged for two pianos by the duo-pianists Gold and Fizdale.

On the whole, these readings by Goldina and Loumbrozo are adequate—neither outstanding nor inept. In general, they are technically adroit and sensitively phrased, but tend to suffer from a stiffness, humorlessness, and lack of panache. However, while I have heard more idiomatic performances of some of the individual pieces, the other Copland two-piano collections known to me display many of the same weaknesses found here.