PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonata No. 12, (“Mirror Sonata’) Op. 145; Piano Sonata No. 10. Poems, Op. 14, nos. 12 and 15. CRUMB: Gnomic Variations. RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 1. RUCCOLO: Toccata. Various Jazz improvisations.

by Walter Simmons



PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonata No. 12, (“Mirror Sonata’) Op. 145. Poems, Op. 14, nos. 12 and 15. CRUMB: Gnomic Variations. Jeffrey Jacob, piano. ORION ORS-84473.

EOUIPOISE. James Ruccolo, piano; Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Lombardi. SPF RECORDS 41203/4.

PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 67. RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 1. RUCCOLO: Toccata. Various Jazz improvisations.

These new releases introduce the artistry of two very fine younger pianists, while presenting the first recordings of two of Vincent Persichetti’s twelve piano sonatas.

Their appearance continues to document the gradual recognition of Persichetti’s contribution to this medium as one of the most comprehensive artistic statements in contemporary piano music. Until now, only the Sonata No. 9, perhaps the most immediately appealing of the sonatas, has appeared on record, in renditions by the American Jackson Berkey and by the Russian Alexander Bakhchiev.

The Sonata No. 10 is probably the largest of the group, as well as the most centrally located in Persichetti’s stylistic spectrum. Dating from 1955, during a period of almost superhuman creativity, the Sonata No. 10 is one of several companion works that strive to integrate a wide range of elements—stylistic and virtuosic—into an intensely concentrated artistic entity that represents, in effect, a summation of modern classicism within the confines of a single composition. Other works of this kind are the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56 (1952), Symphony No. 5 (for strings), Op. 61 (1953), Piano Quintet, Op. 66 (1954), and String Quartet No. 3, Op. 81 (1959). Each consists of one continuous, multisectional movement of about twenty minutes duration, in which a spontaneous spirit of improvisation is combined with the definitiveness of total premeditation. The result is highly cerebral music with charm, wit, grace, tenderness, and dynamism.

Pianist James Ruccolo, in residence at Arizona State University, is a powerhouse virtuoso, who tears into this music and voraciously devours its formidable technical challenges. However, while this may be an effective way to approach Liszt and Rachmaninoff (and plenty of fine contemporary music), when playing Persichetti, every note, every line, and, especially, every rhythmic relationship must be defined, governed by a calm lucidity at all times. Ruccolo plays the fast portions so quickly that details affecting the flow of energy are a little brutalized. Persichetti’s piano music is not suited to self-serving virtuosity. Nevertheless, with that one reservation, this is a stunning, effective performance, more than adequate to demonstrating the merits of the music, and pointing the way for further investigation.

However, somewhat better attuned to the Persichetti style is Jeffrey Jacob, whose pearl­like clarity of articulation is, if less sensational than Ruccolo’s crushing virtuosity, more appropriate to Persichetti’s syntax. The Sonata No. 12 dates from 1980, following a series of etudes exploring the pianistic possibilities of mirror-writing (a compositional device in which everything played by one hand is played in inversion simultaneously by the other, as if the axis between the hands were a mirror). In true Persichetti fashion, once the technical groundwork had been laid, it became time to integrate the procedures into a major work. Hence, the Sonata No. 12, “Mirror Sonata,” a concise, four-movement piece constructed completely and strictly in mirror technique. Does this confine the music in a strait-jacket? Not really. While it does place certain inevitable limitations on the expression, the degree of variety achieved is amazing. Once the listener is accustomed to the kind of harmonic language generated, the realization emerges of an organically satisfying work with a wide range of textures, moods, and types of articulation—no less of a challenge to the pianist than the more comprehensive Sonata No. 10.

Jeffrey Jacob meets this challenge, while displaying a particular gift for the stylistic features found in much contemporary music. Jacob offers an extraordinary precision, delicacy, and clarity, with no sacrifice of vitality. In fact, if a complete traversal of the Persichetti sonatas were being considered, I could think of no pianist better suited to the task. Also included on this disc are a couple of the Poems for piano that Persichetti composed around 1941, inspired by poetic fragments that appealed to him. They are lovely bonuses.

I must, however, express regret that half the valuable space on this disc is devoted to George Crumb’s Gnomic Variations. Perhaps greater familiarity will produce further insights, but I found this, like most of Crumb’s music, to be precious and pretentious, continually promising an artistic experience that is never delivered. It quickly becomes frustrating, then boring. Written for Jacob in 1982, the piece relies heavily on sonorities created by playing inside the piano. Ho hum. Jacob works hard to make something of all this, but I suspect there is no substance in the first place. The Crumb-influenced music of Joseph Schwantner has more to offer.

This is a beautifully produced disc—the best I’ve encountered from Orion. The piano sound is ideally appropriate for the music—neither shallow nor diffuse, but the right point in between—and the surfaces are silent.

In addition to Persichetti’s Sonata No. 10, James Ruccolo’s two-record set includes a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Lombardi. This work sounds much better suited to Ruccolo’s brand of pianism, and, indeed, the performance is quite sensational. Ruccolo commands an effortless virtuosity and a relaxed, natural sense of romantic phrasing that never indulges itself to the detriment of the flow of energy. The student orchestra, surprisingly proficient, is, nonetheless, something of a liability, but Ruccolo is undaunted, proceeding as if he had Reiner and the Chicago Symphony by his side.

As a further demonstration of his versatility, Ruccolo includes a brief toccata of his own, which is as fast and loud as most toccatas written by pianists for their own use. (Let us remember Lorin Hollander’s Up Against the Wall.) But, in addition to this, James Ruccolo presents himself as a jazz improvisor as well as a classical pianist. Hence, the title of this set and the fact that the second disc is devoted entirely to jazz improvisations on some standard tunes. Unfortunately, I would not presume to evaluate Ruccolo’s artistry in this area, beyond observing that the extraordinary dexterity he demonstrates on the classical disc is equally evident in the jazz portion. However, a couple of friends better versed in this area than I found Ruccolo’s work to be uninventive, if pianistically impressive. All the performances on the Ruccolo set are taken from live concerts. Sound quality is generally fine, aside from a high hiss level on a couple of selections.

In sum, piano connoisseurs as well as contemporary music specialists should find both these releases worth investigating.