by Walter Simmons
PERSICHETTI Piano Sonatas: No. 10; No. 11. Serenade No. 7 ● Ellen Burmeister (pn) ● STARKLAND R-3016 (47:07)
Ellen Burmeister is a pianist who was connected for a number of years with the University of Wisconsin, Madison—first as a faculty member, then as Associate Director of the Music School. During her years as a pianist, one of her specialties was the music of Vincent Persichetti.
Though it is not so indicated on the package itself, this is a reissue of a 1985 recording, released on an Owl LP shortly thereafter (at which time I reviewed it in these pages [10:3]). The provenance of the recording is suggested by the short playing time, although a number of sources offer the disc at a reduced price, perhaps in compensation for this.
Any discussion of this recording now must be viewed within the context of Geoffrey Burleson’s masterly traversal of all twelve Persichetti Piano Sonatas (New World 80677), arguably the most significant recording of American piano music to have appeared during the past decade. My enthusiastic review and that of Peter Burwasser can be found in 31:6, while Carson Cooman and I selected it for our Want Lists in 2008.
Although my review of the original release of Burmeister’s recording was largely positive, aside from a few minor cavils, over the years my impression veered in a negative direction, which I now attribute largely to the compromises of the LP medium. The annoying clicks and pops that typically developed with re-playing were an inevitable byproduct of the medium that listeners were forced to endure. Persichetti’s piano music, with its abrupt outbursts of harsh harmonic sonorities, was especially prone to “shatter” and other forms of distortion endemic to the LP medium. This was all very clear to me as I listened to the results of some extremely fine restoration and re-mastering applied to this re-issue.
Given the time limitations of the LP medium, Burmeister’s program is well chosen to highlight the enormous breadth of Persichetti’s range of expression. The Sonata No. 10 is perhaps the greatest of the twelve sonatas, and utilizes what may be viewed as the composer’s central or “mainstream” language, which attained its fullest fruition during the 1950s, when this work was written. This language, essentially a rich expansion of the neo-classicism rooted in the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartók, achieved eloquent expression in this work, which also displays Persichetti’s extraordinary fluency in writing for the piano, which was his most personal creative medium. Not an easy work to assimilate, the sonata comprises four connected movements that hover over the line between tonality and atonality, while employing a harmonic language that may strike listeners with more conservative tastes as rather harsh, although the work’s coherence and expressive authenticity emerge clearly with increased familiarity.
The Sonata No. 11, on the other hand—composed a decade later, in 1965—represents Persichetti’s attempt to embrace the serial “style,” which dominated the “New Music” scene at the time, but without his acceptance of the strict dogmas of that approach. That is, while adopting the wide, abrupt intervallic leaps, indistinct rhythmic pulse, and avoidance of obvious tonal landmarks associated with this style, he did not follow the “method” to the point of compromising the work’s essential musicality. In this sense, his pieces along these lines bear some resemblance to the music of a composer like George Perle, although the two arrived at a similar point by moving in virtually opposite directions. However, those more conservative listeners may be alienated beyond redemption by the uncompromising surface effect of No. 11, despite the fact that the work is no less authentic in its expressive purposes than any of his more accessible compositions.
The Serenade No. 7, dating from 1952, represents the opposite extreme within Persichetti’s output: works of utter simplicity, easy to play and easy to appreciate, with clear tonality, the gentlest of dissonant harmony, and a playfulness suggestive of the personality of a child. Those who know the breadth of the composer’s expressive range are aware of the paramount importance of this aspect of his work. Burmeister lends this music the requisite innocence and charm.
Burmeister’s performances reveal a sensitivity and precision that elicited the composer’s explicit praise—a fact that is overplayed somewhat in the attendant publicity material, especially in light of Persichetti’s renowned generosity toward musicians who played his music. Her performances tend to be somewhat softer-edged than Burleson’s, which are a bit tighter and crisper. But the difference is not great enough to be considered significant. For those listeners who are (inexplicably) unwilling to invest in Geoffrey Burleson’s traversal of the complete cycle of piano sonatas, this is a useful sample. For those who already have Burleson’s recording, Burmeister offers a valid supplement, although not one that adds any significant new insights into the music.
Now that his piano sonatas are represented so handsomely on recording, what is needed next is a recording of Persichetti’s remaining works for solo piano, of which there are more than enough to fill another whole CD.