PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonatas (12)

by Walter Simmons

PERSICHETTI: Piano Sonatas (12) • Geoffrey Burleson (pn) • NEW WORLD 80677-2 (2 CDs: 149:56)

This is a momentous release.

Although Vincent Persichetti is largely known today for his enduringly popular and much beloved works for wind band, as well as for several of his symphonies, the chief focus of his creative activity was music for keyboard instruments—organ, harpsichord, and—most importantly—the piano. Few if any American composers of the 20th century created such a richly diverse body of work for the instrument, from pieces suitable for virtual beginners to works requiring the utmost in virtuosity. Persichetti was a virtuoso pianist himself; many of those who knew him during his earlier years felt that he might have developed a career as a composer-pianist along the lines of Rachmaninoff. But he did not choose that path. The central core of Persichetti’s works for piano solo are his twelve sonatas; in fact, some might argue that they represent the central core of his output altogether. Spanning most of his career—from 1939 though 1980—they document his enormous stylistic range, from diatonic simplicity through quasi-serial complexity, while revealing an exhaustive understanding of the instrument’s capabilities. And yet, only now—more than twenty years since his death—is there a complete recording of these sonatas. In fact, only six of the sonatas have ever been recorded before: the other six are premier recordings! (There is some disagreement about which six sonatas have been recorded before: New World seems to consider No. 4 to have been previously recorded, but that was a minimally-circulated private issue that could not ever have been reasonably be called “available;” on the other hand, they seem unaware that No. 5 was released on CD in 1989 in a performance by Jacqueline Herbein [ASLK-CGER 87 042], reviewed in Fanfare 13:1, p. 413.)

Those who know Persichetti chiefly through his music for band are likely to be surprised by the broader range embraced by the piano sonatas, which reach into realms of contrapuntal, harmonic, and rhythmic complexity barely approached by most of the music for winds. Persichetti was not an innovator—nor, strictly speaking, an eclectic. Rather, he was a synthesizer—perhaps the greatest synthesizer of his time—who forged a language rooted largely in the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Copland, and, to some extent, Bartók, Harris, and Schuman. But his mastery of this language often exceeded in subtlety, nuance, breadth, and range the craftsmanship of those innovators who influenced him. And, instead of being mere pastiche, Persichetti’s work was unified by his own distinctive personality—mercurial, with a childlike innocence, a dry wit, and a deliberately cagey ambiguity.

Viewed collectively the twelve sonatas do not follow a simple trajectory. No. 1 is large, craggy, and dissonant—almost Schoenbergian; No. 2 is neo-classical and reminiscent of Hindemith; No. 3 suggests 1940s American nationalism; No. 4 is somewhat like No. 1—serious, highly chromatic, and demanding; Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 8 are lighter in texture and more purely neo-classical; No. 9 is catchy and closest to the style of the band works; No. 10 is perhaps the most substantial and, in some ways, the crowning achievement of the cycle; No. 11 is as close to the academic serialism of the 1960s as the composer ventured; and No. 12 is entirely in “mirror-writing,” i.e., everything that happens in the right hand is literally mirrored (in inversion) in the left hand—and that means every single note!

Geoffrey Burleson displays a thorough grasp of this variegated cycle, highlighting its dynamic rhythms, as well as the pretty wisps of melody that often emerge from dense, dissonant contrapuntal textures. His technical security is such that he is undaunted by any of the challenges offered by the music. Burleson’s performances provide convincing evidence that Persichetti’s are perhaps the most wide-ranging, masterfully executed, and comprehensively eloquent cycle of piano sonatas of the 20th century. In his own program notes, Burleson further reveals an intimate understanding of the inner dynamics that propel this music.

For further discussion of Burleson’s performances, I refer the reader to the comments of my colleague. I recuse myself from more specifics, because of my own simultaneous involvement in what will be another recording of the Persichetti sonatas, to be released in individual installments by Naxos over the coming months. But I can assure all interested readers that no one will be disappointed by Burleson’s performances.