PERSICHETTI Poems, Vols 1-3. BLOCH Poems of the Sea. M. GOULD Pieces of China. DIAMOND Sonatinas Nos. 1, 2 – Mirian Conti (pn) – ALBANY TROY-299 (61:06)
There seems to be a plethora of solo piano recordings these days — probably because they are relatively inexpensive to produce. But there are so many fine pianists around (and the presence or lack of name-recognition is utterly meaningless in a world in which hype overshadows and displaces quality) and so much unrecorded repertoire of merit and interest lying dormant that the appetite of the adventurous collector of 20th-century music remains unsated. And so, here is another new release of unfamiliar modern piano music that is beautifully performed and worth knowing.
On a number of occasions I have made reference to Vincent Persichetti’s large output of piano music, prompted by recordings of a piece or two that merely whet one’s appetite for more. This is a body of work that comprises some 35 pieces, including twelve sonatas, six sonatinas, a concerto, and a concertino, plus works for piano–four hands, for two pianos, et al. The music spans the years 1929 (when Persichetti was 14) to 1986 (the year before he died), and includes pieces for pianists at all levels, from the beginning student to the advanced professional. I would go so far as to assert that no composer since Scriabin has produced a body of piano music that offers such breadth of meaning, such fluency of articulation, and such richness of invention — not to mention such comprehensive and masterful use of the instrument’s intrinsic resources. Indeed, Persichetti’s piano music fully embodies in microcosm the vast, all-encompassing range of his expression. For this reason a comprehensive recorded survey of this repertoire, undertaken by a pianist capable of and sympathetic to its particular requirements of technique and temperament, is sorely needed. Only then will my seemingly extravagant claims prove to be self-evident.
The particular sample of Persichetti’s work offered to us by Argentine pianist Mirian Conti comprises the three volumes of Poems, composed between the years 1939-41. Persichetti was by temperament a miniaturist: even his large-scale works are usually made up of small structural elements. Poems for Piano consists of 16 tiny pieces, averaging less than two minutes each. Each was inspired by a single line of modern — and American, for the most part — poetry, bursting with imagery. It would be pointless — indeed, presumptuous — for me (with no claim to authority in the area of poetry) to comment on the aptness of his (necessarily subjective) musical interpretations. But I can state that with remarkable subtlety and economy of means these brief sketches embrace a vast range of moods and states of mind, not to mention musical styles and approaches to piano figuration, yet with virtually no redundancy of either meaning or technique. As with most of Persichetti’s music, these pieces can be heard over and over — even within the same time period — without the listener’s becoming satiated, fatigued, or bored. And to think that he composed these pieces during his middle 20s, before his own mature musical language had fully crystallized! True, some are more immediately ingratiating than others. For example, two in particular– No. 10 (“Dust in sunlight and memory in corners,” T.S. Eliot) and No. 15 (“And hunged like those top jewels of the night,” Léonie Adams)–leap instantly and directly into one’s heart. Conti seems to have a real feel for this music, capturing the essence of each miniature without being encumbered by technical limitations of any kind, and exhibiting the crisp touch, textural clarity, and rhythmic precision Persichetti’s music requires. One hopes that she will have the opportunity to record more of his work.
Though sharing the appellation “poems,” Ernest Bloch’s Poems of the Sea are impressionistic evocations whose murky textures provide an aesthetic experience diametrically opposite to that offered by Persichetti. Though composed during the early 1920s, when Bloch produced some of his most intense and profound chamber works, the Poems of the Sea must be regarded as minor efforts. However, as picturesque mood-paintings they offer novelty to recital programs of intermediate-level pianists. Interestingly, although Conti captures the impressionistic textural effects quite nicely, there is a stilted quality, a lack of spontaneity perhaps, to her melodic phrasing. She seems a little uncomfortable with the music, and it is probably the least successful of her performances here. (A rarely-heard orchestral version of these pieces is available on Bis CD-639, with Sakari Oramo conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.)
Surprisingly appealing are Morton Gould’s late (1985) Pieces of China, described in the program notes as an American’s impressions of China. But these six sketches strike me more as a French jazz pianist’s impressions of China. The first piece, called “The Great Wall,” is quite subtle in its fusion of these layers of apprehension, and is worthy of attention; however, as they go on the sketches seem successively less interesting, in their Franco-Stravinskian manner.
Also included are David Diamond’s two sonatinas. Less than five minutes each, they are pleasantly unpretentious and pretty, in a bland, post-Debussy sort of way. (Come to think of it, I guess the ghost of Debussy hovers over all the music on this CD except the Persichetti.) What is most remarkable about these sonatinas is how similar they are, considering that they were composed more than fifty years apart (1935 and 1987).