by Walter Simmons
PERSICHETTI: Concerto for Piano, Four Hands. Piano Sonata No. 9. Sonata for Two Piano. Alexander Bakhchiev, Elena Sorokina, pianos. MELODIYA C10161334.
MENNIN: Symphony No. 7. BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.Leonid Kogan, violin; Ukrainian SSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pavel Kogan. MELODIYA C10164478.
That’s right, folks. The Russians have discovered American music: two records containing some of the best this country has to offer—on Melodiya! And, while, in fact, all five of these works are currently. available on American recordings, only the Barber concerto could be considered “familiar” to most music lovers. Thus, Americans can be rather impressed—if not a little shamed—by this bold, ambitious venture into a repertoire that has until now been known only to a very limited audience.
Among the many exciting aspects of these recordings is the opportunity of hearing this music performed by artists nurtured in a very different musical culture. Some of the pieces fare better than others. For example, the Barber violin concerto offers a rather international style of melodic beauty quite susceptible to the conventional, straightforward approach that might be taken by any competent violinist—certainly one of the reasons that the work has won and retained such popularity. Leonid Kogan digs in with ardent warmth. His tone is rich and smooth; were it not for several moments of sagging pitch during the first movement, the performance could be recommended without reservation. The gorgeous second movement is played as well as or better than I’ve ever heard. (The third movement is such a ridiculous incongruity that no performer can save it.) The orchestra accompanies competently and with wholehearted enthusiasm. Of course, the Stem/Bemstein performance is superb, and the Kaufman/Goehr is also; but this Kogan/Kogan rendition is in their class, and its modern recorded sound—close but rich—is an advantage.
That the Russian performance of the Barber concerto is so good is not really surprising. That their performance of the Mennin Symphony No. 7 is—that’s something else again. The work, which I would not hesitate to rank among the ten greatest American symphonies, is a formidable challenge to the precision, the musicianship—and the physical and intellectual endurance—of both conductor and orchestra. It is a work appropriate to the abilities of the partnership that commissioned and premiered it in 1963-64: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra—and of the partnership that later recorded it as well: Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony. The Chicago recording is one of the most impressive accomplishments in the discography of American music. So I must confess to having put this Ukrainian disc on the turntable with a patronizing chuckle. The fact is that the performance is nothing to laugh about. True, there are missed notes (both the Mennin and Barber are taken from live performances (coughs, applause, and all), and the ensemble is a little ragged. But this group attacks the music with such intense conviction that the cataclysmic spirit of the work comes through full force, while the coarseness of the ensemble almost enhances the ruggedness of the music. Much credit for this must be attributed to the penetrating musicianship of Pavel Kogan (son of Leonid?).
The Mennin Seventh belongs to that select group of works that leave the listener feeling that, within its particular aesthetic category, the experience of hearing it cannot possibly be topped. Another work that leaves this impression is Vincent Persichetti’s Concerto for Piano, Four Hands—though its own message is very different. While each speaks through the language of pure music, the Mennin is a Beethovenian, public raging-fist-shaking-at-the-heavens type of statement, whereas the Persichetti is an intimate Mozartean romp of intellectual delight. Both are multisectional works, each integrated into one large movement, but Mennin’s gaze has a broad sweep, while Persichetti stops often for spontaneous moments of parenthetical interest. Part of the concerto’s magic lies in the way these little digressions ultimately cohere as part of the large design. Mennin and Persichetti are often grouped together as composers, but these two works, which represent each at his very best and most characteristic, clearly demonstrate how vastly different indeed are their modes of expression.
Persichetti is often at his most profound in music of high spirits—even of mischievous humor. This all-important insight seems to have eluded pianists Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina, who misread much of the spirit of this music, while demonstrating competent pianism and evidence of good hard work. One wonders whether, during their well-intentioned preparation of this disc, the pianists had the opportunity to refer to the venerable recording of the concerto featuring the composer and his wife in what must be regarded as the definitive interpretation of this work. Bakhchiev and Sorokina open with a severe portentousness that soon becomes ponderous. Not only does this destroy the playfulness so essential to the meaning of the concerto, but it extends the length of the entire work some thirty percent beyond the composer’s intended duration, throwing relationships of tempo and structure out of kilter. Once the piece goes further along, however, the duo becomes better attuned to its momentum, and their superlative technical control enables them to highlight some details that even the virtuoso Persichetti performance misses. In all, the Russians approach the piece with such seriousness of purpose and pianistic mastery that the result is rather interesting in its way, despite the misjudgments (and much better, I might add, than the Wentworth performance, currently available on Grenadilla). But the element of spunk, manifested by a springy sort of rhythmic bounce, seems outside the Russian duo’s expressive vocabulary.
It is this trait that is also missing from Bakhchiev’s performance of Persichetti’s Piano Sonata No. 9. Of Persichetti’s twelve piano sonatas, notable for their exhaustive traversal of the full range of contemporary piano technique, the Ninth is one of the most immediately appealing. Composed during the 1950s–a fertile decade for Persichetti, when he produced the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands and literally dozens of other important works—the Ninth Sonata is a delightful essay in the sort of musical stream-of-consciousness pioneered by Roy Harris. But Persichetti carries it off with a wit and sparkle foreign to the elder composer. In its mere ten minutes or so, the sonata charts a dynamic course, suggesting a range of moods from whimsical to naughty to triumphant. American pianist Jackson Berkey has recorded the work on a remarkable direct-to-disc recital album. His rendition offers in abundance the very qualities missing from Bakhchiev’s performance, which is fluent, competent, but too reserved and a little stiff.
Of the three pieces, it is perhaps the early Sonata for Two Pianos, a somewhat less impressive work than its companions, that is accorded the best performance here. Interestingly, while Persichetti is often profound without being turgid, he is on occasion turgid without being profound. This is particularly true in his earliest pieces, when he often employed a harmonic language inappropriately harsh in relation to the musical import. This 1940 sonata must be included among those works. Yet its craggier textures and grander gestures seem better suited to the Russian duo, who manage to imbue the work with a good deal of sensitivity and vitality, highlighting its parodistic quality. Their performance compares favorably with Yarbrough and Cowan’s rendition on CRI.
Recorded sound of both discs is quite good; surfaces are adequate. I look forward to further Russian forays into the world of American music. Maybe some other countries would like to join in too. A fantasy-list of new releases begins to appear before my eyes…