PERSICHETTI: Concerto for Piano, Four Hands. Sonata for Two Pianos. Serenade No. 8. BARBER: Souvenirs. Malinova Sisters, piano duo. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7213-2H1 [DDD]; 52:11. Produced by Michael Fine
PERSICHETTI: Celebrations. HANSON: Chorale and Alleluia. March Carillon. TULL: Variants on an Advent Hymn. CAMPHOUSE: A Movement for Rosa. MELILLO: Escape from Plato’s Cave. GRAINGER: Themes from “Greenbushes”. STAMP: Chorale Prelude, “Be Thou My Vision”. Jack Stamp conducting the Indiana University/Pennsylvania Wind Ensemble and Chorale, and the Keystone Wind Ensemble; Thomas O’Neal conducting the Arkansas State University Symphonic Band. CITADEL CTD-88111 [DDD]; 66:10. Produced by Tom Null.
PERSICHETTI: Masquerade. GILLINGHAM: Serenade, “Songs of the Night”. GILMORE: Five Folksongs. ZAPPA: Envelopes; Dog Breath Variations. SCHMITT: Dionysiaques. Barbara Pare, soprano; Eugene Corporon conducting the Cincinnati College Conservatory Wind Symphony. KLAVIER KCD-11066 [DDD]; 70:25. Produced by Jack Stamp.
Here are three new releases featuring music by Vincent Persichetti, including some pieces recorded for the first time The Koch disc features the Moscow-born, American-trained piano duo Margarita and Olga Malinova performing Persichetti’s three pieces–widely divergent in scope-for two pianists.
Readers with obsessive-compulsive inclinations might be interested to note that this disc’s clearest precurser is a 1982 Melodiya LP 010161334 featuring the Soviet duo of Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina in an all-Persichetti program that included both the Concerto and Sonata offered here, as well as the Piano Sonata No. 9 (see Fanfare 6:3, pp. 226-8). Though that disc was a remarkably curious phenomenon for the American music specialist, the average listener is not likely to find the performances worth the considerable effort to locate, as the interpretations are quite misguided, for the most part. Only the craggy density of the Sonata for Two Pianosseemed well suited to the Bakhchiev/Sorokina Duo’s approach. Koch’s Malinova Sisters also offer a fine reading of this relatively brief early work which, though sensitively conceived and superbly crafted, lacks the distinctive Persichetti personality that blossomed during the 1950s, which was the composer’s most fertile and creatively consummated period. As I wrote in the review cited above, “While Persichetti is often profound without being turgid, he is on occasion turgid without being profound. This is particularly true in his earlier pieces, An example is the 1940 Sonata, a knotty, dense work that uses a strangely angular, tonally attenuated harmonic-melodic syntax to express relatively simple human gestures. The contrast between the Sonata for Two Pianos and the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands that followed 11 years later is striking. Here are structural lucidity, stylistic focus, and coherent integration of materials and content, accomplished through effortless compositional mastery, that result in a uniquely personal musical language of tremendous nuance, breadth, and depth. After some 35 years of acquaintance with the work, during which I have listened to it hundreds of times, I continue to feel that theConcerto for Piano, Four Hands, is one of the most completely satisfying pieces of music I know. It is a work like this, together with, say, the Symphony No. 5 (for strings) and No. 6 (for band), to mention just three, that made Persichetti — along with Peter Mennin — the most significant American compositional voice of the 1950s. (The fact that these two composers shared their professional lives in the same institution during this period is a fascinating coincidence, warranting deeper analysis which is, however, outside the scope of this review.)
The Concerto, like the Fifth Symphony, is a work of approximately 20 minutes duration, comprising one multisectional movement that develops a single theme — in the case of the Concerto, primarily four notes — through an enormous range of moods, textures, and levels of activity. Such a work, with an endless number of details to savor from different perspectives, can benefit from a variety of interpretive approaches. The Malinovas’ is only the fourth recording of the work to appear in the 45 years of its existence the three most recent were all released during the past 15 years I would have to say that this is the best of these three, and the only one available on CD, so it warrants commendation. However, as solid and competent as their reading is, the Malinova Sisters lack the ecstatic mercurial exuberance — and even the technical precision — of the first recording, on Columbia Records “Modern American Music” series, which featured the composer and his wife in a recording made a couple of years after they gave the premiere. That performance, bristling with energy, rhythmic vitality, delicacy, and wit, is in a class by itself. However, it certainly warrants the supplement of a superior modern recording, and I am sure that there is no shortage of duos capable of capturing the expressive-technical gestalt of this work more comprehensively than the Malinovas have.
Serenade No. 8 is another work for piano, four hands, represented here in its first recording. Far from the virtuoso demands of the Concerto just discussed, this piece, composed three years later, can be assayed by lower-intermediate level piano students. Yet, as with most of Persichetti’s easier music, rewards to the listener are uncompromised. Indeed, the warmth, simplicity, and good humor that infuse the four tiny movements of this three-minute work are also perceptible within expressive core of the far more forbidding Concerto. This consistency is one of the most remarkable and endearing hallmarks of Persichetti’s genius.
The Citadel disc offers the first recording of Persichetti’s Celebrations, nine poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, set in 1966 for mixed chorus and wind ensemble. Modern poetry was of Persichetti’s great loves, and, though never widely represented in his discography, song cycles and choral settings represent — along with keyboard music and wind music — an essential aspect of his compositional identity. Compared with the brash grandiosity of most Whitman settings by American composers of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Persichetti’s are gentle, lithe, and brightly affirmative in character. They are generally syllabic homophonic, and quite lightly scored, so that the words are dominant and clearly audible (texts are included anyway). The chorus and wind ensemble from Indiana University of Pennsylvania contribute a sensitive and stirring performance
The Klavier disc originally appeared on the Mark label in 1992, but has now been absorbed into Klavier’s Corporon/Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Series. (Corporon has since moved on to North Texas State University, and seems to be continuing his fine series of recordings with their superb group.) Reviewing the Mark release inFanfare 16:5 (pp. 278-81), I wrote that Persichetti’s 11-minute Masquerade is “a brilliant, kaleidoscopically unfolding set of variations on material that originally appeared in a didactic setting in his text, Twentieth Century Harmony. Composed in 1966, Masquerade is more dissonant and less clearly tonal than such band works from the 50s as Psalm, Pageant, and the Symphony No. 6. Nevertheless, its cool, light tone and exuberant rhythms produce a genial, exhilarating effect that masks its intricate (and fascinating) structure. The performance by the Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony is excellent.”
Turning now to the companion works: Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs is, for those unfamiliar with it, a sort of affectionate, nostalgic excursion into turn-of-the-century salon music — much more lightweight entertainment than one might expect from this typically serious, high-toned composer. As much as love Barber’s music, this is not at all my cup of tea, yet, after resisting it for years, even I now find myself captivated by some irresistible moments, such as the “Hesitation Tango.” Souvenirs was originally written in 1951 for piano, four hands, but Barber prepared a piano, two hands, version and an orchestral version shortly afterward. In 1952, the piano duo Gold and Fizdale arranged it for two pianos; the music has been successful in all four versions. The Malinova Sisters provide a warm and energetic reading, but I prefer the grace and panache of John Browning and Leonard Slatkin in their reading of the one piano, four hands, version (RCA 60732-2-RC — listed incorrectly in Opus as the orchestral version). The Citadel disc bears the stamp of Jack Stamp, an active figure in the world of band music today, who has launched a series of recordings that are contributing to the integration of this genre into the mainstream of recorded music. This new release features — except for Stamp’s own piece — two ensembles from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Stamp is Director of Bands. The performances are generally quite good, though at times a little rough and heavy?handed, compared to the Fennell and Corporon recordings to which we have become accustomed.
Howard Hanson’s March Carillon is an arrangement of one of his 1920 Yuletide Pieces. Though routine and pedestrian in character, it displays some endearing and distinctively Hansonian turns of phrase. Chorale and Alleluia (1953) is probably Hanson’s best known work for band and exhibits the rousing chorale style and the over-reliance on ostinato patterns that are both characteristic of the composer. Stephen Melillo is a prolific composer of functional music. His Escape from Plato’s Cave is a 12-minute tone poem in an ingratiating and uncomplicated neoromantic idiom, with a slightly slick, overblown quality that suggests a contemporary Hollywood influence. With its alternation of stirring and heartwarming moods, it might be characterized as Hanson updated for the ’90s. Mark Camphouse’s A Movement for Rosa is the same duration and in much the same style as Melillo’s piece. Inspired by Black civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, it is a dramatic, heartfelt, and thoroughly accessible work. Both these pieces are enjoyable, if not terrible challenging.
Fisher Tull’s piece consists of four variations on the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” scored for brass and percussion. This is music in the mainstream American band language of the 1950s and 60s — flamboyant and brash, not very deeply felt, but skillful and superficially attractive. Percy Grainger’s Themes from “Greenbushes” is a delightful treatment of the same tune that concludes Lincolnshire Posy. Substantially different from its elaboration in that work, this version was originally done for orchestra, then transcribed for band. Jack Stamp’s own Chorale Prelude: Be Thou My Vision was explicitly modeled on similar band works by Persichetti, although these simple diatonic variations a far cry from the reflective subtleties of the latter’s chorale preludes. Stamp’s piece was written for the Arkansas State University Symphonic Band, and they offer a fine rendition here.
Altogether, this is an attractive, entertaining program that should appeal to band aficionados, while more selective mainstream listeners will be especially interested in the Persichetti Celebrations. Unfortunately, program notes are very skimpy and omit much relevant and important background information.
I hope that the response to Stamp’s ongoing series of recordings will justify many more releases; perhaps he will address some of the less well-known masterpieces of the conservative/modern genre that seems to appeal to him most especially, works such Vittorio Giannini’s Variations and Fugue, Arnold Rosner’s Trinity — both of which have yet to be recorded — and Nicolas Flagello’s Symphony of the Winds, which was issued on a recent Citadel disc, but in a performance that leaves much room for technical and interpretive improvement. These are works that make pieces such as those by Melillo, Camphouse, Tull, and the like seem simplistic in content, ordinary in effect, and primitive in execution, yet are themselves no less accessible to listeners.
For comments on the music that appears on the Klavier disc, I refer the reader to the review in Fanfare 16:5 cited above. There I noted that “the recording quality . is a bit lacking in brilliance.” For this Klavier re-issue, the equalization appears to have been improved significantly.