PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonatas: No. 10; No. 11. Serenade No. 7.

by Walter Simmons

PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonatas: No. 10; No. 11. Serenade No. 7. Ellen Burmeister, piano. OWL 29.

The piano music of Vincent Persichetti, especially the twelve sonatas, comprises the most penetrating lens through which to view the formidable output of one of the most fertile, profoundly creative, and intrinsically musical minds of our time. A virtuoso pianist, Persichetti has endowed his music with the most individual and imaginative use of the full gamut of keyboard possibilities. Indeed, as with only the most pianistically oriented composers, the instrument becomes an entire universe of aesthetic possibilities. Thus it is unfortunately typical of our sterile, tawdry culture that so few of these works are available on recording and that those discs that are available require a bit of extra effort to locate.

Current or recent recordings of Persichetti piano sonatas include: two recordings of the lively and engaging Sonata No. 9 (Jackson Berkey on American Gramaphone AG361; Alexander Bakhchiev on Melodiya C10161334); Sonata No. 10 performed by James Ruccolo (SPF Records 41203/4); and Sonata No. 12, an entire work composed using mirror-technique, played by Jeffrev Jacob (Orion ORS-84473).

Although I have tried many times and will try once again, it is difficult to define for the general listener much of what makes Persichetti’s music so extraordinary. On casual exposure, one’s impression is likely to suggest a neoclassicism of the sort that flourished in the United States during the 1940s—indeed, a Stravinsky/Hindemith/Copland stylistic axis does represent Persichetti’s basic frame of reference, although it ranges in many directions from that central fulcrum. But as one plumbs further into the music, one begins to realize that his is a deeper, more richly meaningful level of expression than that of the three individuals just cited. As has been observed by many commentators, one aspect of Persichetti’s music that has baffled those who have attempted to conceptualize it is the way it embraces an omnivorous stylistic range, moving apparently unsystematically and unpredictably from simple, diatonic pieces to the most rigorous and complex treatments of material that is quite knotty and harsh.

But there is another aspect to Persichetti—one that is perhaps most difficult to characterize in words: Although his music is almost wholly abstract, i.e., non-referential (with the exception of vocal works with texts), one begins to realize with greater familiarity that there is a sense in which it is referential—not in the sense of the typical late-Romantic symphony, for example, with its “abstract program,” in which the music presents an abstract analog in sound to an emotional drama. Rather, Persichetti’s vocabulary of gestures and figures and the rather objective, detached way they unfold and interact form a kind of private language, from which he has created his own little universe of expression. Seen in this way, the music begins to emerge as a personal metaphor, with cross-references and elaborations of ideas from other pieces winking slyly at the listener, conveying a wealth of enigmatic allusions that call for a particularly intuitive level of apprehension. All this is carried out with a light touch, devoid of pomposity or solemnity, yet by no means trivial. The impression is of an imaginary world, peopled by a large cast of cartoon-like characters, created by an eccentric master-puppeteer who amuses himself by portraying his own metaphysical vision through the interactions of his puppets. This admittedly strange interpretation, which I have been developing for some time, is confirmed by several other items: One is Persichetti’s ongoing series, begun during the late 1960s and now numbering almost thirty, of Parables–pieces that “convey a meaning indirectly by the use of comparisons or analogies.” These are abstract pieces—many of them brief essays for unaccompanied monophonic instruments, such as trumpet, oboe, etc.—which function in an allegorical way, usually by developing a motif that may have appeared originally in another work. The Parable then becomes a sort of footnote or commentary to an aspect of the earlier work. This notion became more apparent with the recent appearance of the composer’s first opera, The Sibyl, which bears the subtitle “Parable XX.” And what is The Sibyl? A cute, witty, musically ingratiating but thoroughly bizarre, nightmarishly pessimistic piece, set to the composer’s own libretto, brimming with references to previous Persichetti works, based on the story of “Chicken Little,” with a cast comprising Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey, etc. In a way, The Sibyl is the quintessential Persichetti work.

All of which serves as background to the record at hand, which contains three very different types of works for piano. The Sonata No. 10 is perhaps the most far-reaching of the composer’s piano sonatas—the longest and possibly the most rewarding. Composed in 1955, during Persichetti’s richest and most fertile period, it resembles his other major works of the decade: a one-movement conception in which a minimum of motivic material is developed to form a brilliantly varied and integrated large­scale work. The idiom is at the center of the composer’s stylistic spectrum—quite complex but no more forbidding than comparable works by Bartók or Stravinsky, for example. Many will find the sonata’s lyrical moments, rhythmic vigor, and virtuosic piano writing engaging enough to induce further hearings, although quite a few will probably be necessary before the work really becomes clear. (Persichetti is one of those composers whose music can be heard over and over without satiation or exhaustion, as a result of its many levels of interest and the fact that it is not really demanding emotionally.)

The Sonata No. 11, composed ten years later, falls at the most challenging extreme of Persichetti’s stylistic spectrum, along with works like the String Quartet No. 4 and the Symphony No. 9. “Janiculum.” Without actually following the 12-tone technique, these works use quasi­serial procedures to create a similar impression of severe irregularity, instability, and disjointedness in texture, rhythm, and tonality. Listeners not sympathetic to the serial style will probably have difficulty with the Eleventh Sonata, and may be unable to distinguish it from many far less engrossing works that convey a similar surface effect. However, again, repeated exposure reveals that the sonata fully shares the sensibility of the marvelous Persichetti universe, with much to challenge and stimulate the patient listener.

Persichetti has composed some fifteen serenades—pieces scored for a variety of different instrumentations, comprising several very short, epigrammatic movements, and drawing upon the composer’s full stylistic gamut. The Serenade No. 7 for piano dates from 1952 and presents the composer in his simplest, most genial frame of mind. These are pieces within the performing grasp of the young piano student, yet are charming and delightful to hear. The listener who can perceive the essential unity underlying the Sonata No. 11 and the Serenade No. 7 has begun to penetrate the essence of Persichetti.

Ellen Burmeister, who is on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, has studied and performed Persichetti’s piano music extensively prior to making these recordings. She clearly has a rich understanding of the composer’s mode of expression, while mastering most of his technical requirements impressively. She plays with a warmth and delicacy often quite appropriate to the music. The magnitude of her achievement with regard to the enormously difficult Tenth and Eleventh Sonatas is such that I sincerely regret having to report aspects of her performances that fall short of the ideal realization, at least as I see it.

In discussing James Ruccolo’s rendition of the Sonata No. 10, I had observed that the young pianist had approached it as a showcase for powerhouse virtuosity, which is not the kind of piece it is. I had felt that he had compromised clarity of contrapuntal articulation and rhythmic definition in the interests of sheer speed and power: Burmeister is more effective than Ruccolo in delineating the counterpoint, but I would prefer a crisper, more kinetic, and more precise articulation, as exemplified by Jeffrey Jacob in his recording of the Twelfth Sonata. In general, Brumeister is a little cautious and understated in her approach to both sonatas, which would benefit from a wider, more dynamic range of expression as, indeed, the scores specify. Nevertheless, her readings are more than competent, conveying a good deal of the music’s depth.

If this is the initial release in a prospective traversal of the complete Persichetti sonatas, I support the venture and eagerly look forward to further installments. Persichetti is one of the 20th century’s most important composers of piano music and every effort to make these works better known and understood should be encouraged. I feel that Ellen Burmeister is capable of doing justice to the remaining sonatas and the superb recorded sound and disc quality provided by Owl Records offers a flattering showcase.