by Walter Simmons
TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN 4-HAND PIANO MUSIC. Margret Elson, Elizabeth Swarthout, piano. LAUREL LR859CD [DDD]; 69:19. Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert. PERSICHETTI: Concerto for Piano, Four Hands. CORIGLIANO: Gazebo Dances. RIEGGER: The Cry. Evocation. G. LEVINSON: Morning Star. C. POLIN: Phantasmagoria. S. SHIFRIN: The Modern Temper. L. MOSS: Omaggio.
Here is quite a mixed bag of four-hand music, despite the unified character suggested by the title. Pianist Elson’s program notes qualify the contents further, by stating, “American 20th-century culture is an urban culture, largely associated with the East Coast, and in particular, with New York.” What a glib, presumptuous, and highly debatable generalization, even to a lifelong New Yorker like me! I would expect non-New Yorkers to find it especially offensive, revealing quite a limited perspective on the part of the pianists. But let’s just dismiss it as a feeble attempt to find a unifying concept for the program, after the fact. What we have is a very varied program, ranging from the profound to the inconsequential.
The profound refers to Vincent Persichetti’s 1952 Concerto for Piano, Four Hands.Despite Laurel’s assertion of “CD Premiere,” this is actually the work’s second representation on the first featuring the Malinova Sisters on Koch International see Fanfare 19:5, pp. 233ff), and the fifth recording ever, as far as I know. The concerto is an enormously challenging work, not just because of its artistic complexity, but also because it seems further designed deliberately to pose technical problems particularly challenging to a four-hand team, such as– to name just one– the passage in the Coda in which 16th-notes interwoven in all four hands accelerate gradually from [16th] = 40 to [4th] = 144 over a span of approximately 30 measures. One could cite many more fascinating moments, as there is a virtually inexhaustible fund of meaningful expressive activity in this incredibly integrated tour de force of compositional exuberance. For comments on its previous recordings, see the review just cited. I would place Elson-Swarthout’s performance on a par with the Malinova Sisters: excellent, well-coordinated, technically adroit, expressively informed. The shortcoming shared by both renditions is made evident by comparing them with the first-ever recording, featuring Persichetti and his wife (Columbia ML-4989 — Will this performance ever be reissued? Surpassed by any other duo?). Not only do the two truly play as one, but there are a few passages — the same ones, in fact — in which both the Malinovas and Elson-Swarthout seem to be laboring to achieve a precision of rhythmic articulation that emerges as effortlessly natural and spontaneous in the Persichetti performance. Both Elson-Swarthout and the Malinovas make valiant attempts, which must suffice for the moment. I know that a lot of music is described as indispensable in this magazine, but Persichetti’s Concerto for Piano, Four Hands really is.
The other music of some general interest are John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances in their original piano, four hands version. (They have achieved some popularity in arrangements for both orchestra and concert band. The composer explains that these dances, composed in 1972, attempt to suggest the tradition of the outdoor band concerts that used to entertain townspeople during the summertime in the northeastern United States. The image may be somewhat Ivesian, but — as is so often true of Corigliano — the music most clearly calls to mind Samuel Barber, here in his Souvenirs mode that work was also originally written for piano, four hands), laced with touches of Leonard Bernstein. However, compared to Souvenirs, the Gazebo Dances are less arch coy, more bracingly straightforward. Like most of Corigliano, the music is sheer entertainment, although the slow movement has some touching moments. Elson and Swarthout perform the dances with expert artistry.
The short pieces that comprise the remainder of the disc unfortunately, of a lower order of interest. Not wholly without merit are the two pieces, originally composed for choreographic use during the early 1930s, by Wallingford Riegger. The Cry is said to suggest the spirit of “romanticism, is mysteriously Scriabinesque, depending on a harmonic language that highlights the whole-tone scale and augmented triads. Evocation supposedly evokes the spirit of “tragedy” and is much more aggressive and raucous — almost Bartokian in its chromaticism. Though effective in their ways, both pieces give the impression of experimental exercises, rather than serious expressions.
The remainder of the pieces all use, to one extent or another, the expanded piano techniques pioneered by Henry Cowell during the 1910s and 20s. Gerald Levinson is in his mid-forties and teaches at Swarthmore College. His 1989 Morning Star, appended with a quotation from the Book of Job, is a mysterious study in sonority that prominently displays the influence of Olivier Messiaen, Levinson’s teacher. Claire Polin, now 70, was a student of Persichetti in Philadelphia. Her 1990 Phantasmagoria uses a prepared piano, sounding something like a Yiddish John Cage. Seymour Shifrin’s The Modern Temper (1959 and Lawrence Moss’s Omaggio (1966) represent the academic mainstream of their time, offering the sort of serialist banging and twittering that has largely passed into oblivion.