PERSICHETTI: Mirror Etudes ROREM: Eight Etudes PERLE Six Etudes

by Walter Simmons

PERSICHETTI Mirror Etudes ROREM Eight Etudes PERLE Six Etudes – Frances Renzi (pn) – CENTAUR CRC-2301 (53:57)

This is a really fine recent release, albeit one whose likely audience is rather small, i.e. those interested in atonal — though not (for the most part) serial — piano music.  The disc examines the étude — that favorite genre-piece of 19th-century pianist-composers — as practiced by three 20th-century Americans.  A rather predictable academic idea, perhaps.  But looking more closely, one notes that two of the three composers (Persichetti and Perle) were born the same year (1915), and the third is a mere eight years younger, and all have pursued their reasonably successful careers in the northeastern part of this country.  The program becomes more interesting when one considers that the three collections of études all date from the 1970s.  Furthermore, the composers are generally identified through remarkably different — if only superficially appropriate–sociomusical pedigrees:  Persichetti, the conservative teacher of composition, best known for his exuberant music for high school and college bands; Perle, explicator of the “Second Viennese School” and serial theorist/composer; and Rorem, urbane boulevardier, naughty diarist, and composer of sophisticated French-flavored art songs.  Of course, each is a much richer, broader character than these oversimplified rubrics indicate.  But what is most surprising and fascinating is that these three groups of pieces are amazingly similar in style, technique, and character.  In addition, despite the fact that these pieces are conceived along didactic lines — i.e. they are constructed as compositional challenges as well as technical exercises for the pianist — each of the 21 pieces is a finely and sensitively wrought musical miniature without a moment that is merely mechanical or pedantic.  And, on top of it all, the playing is absolutely superb.  I know little about Frances Renzi beyond the fact that she is a Texan who studied at Juilliard with Rosina Lhevinne and Beveridge Webster and is now on the piano faculty of the University of Toledo.  But I can tell you that she plays this intellectually and technically demanding music with crystal-clear articulation, impeccable rhythmic precision, unflagging energy, and a truly remarkable understanding of the formidable and rarefied aesthetic domain inhabited by these pieces.

I probably should end this review with the foregoing paragraph, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t add a few more words of explanation.  For example, while Vincent Persichetti may be best known for his band music, his piano music is probably the most important and most representative aspect of his entire output.  His works embrace an enormous stylistic range, and many extend beyond a discernible tonal center. Mirror Etudes illustrate a technique that preoccupied him during the late 1970s: strict contrary motion — that is, everything played by one hand is played in exact inversion by the other hand simultaneously — a technique not usuallylikely to produce listenable music.  Persichetti thrived under such restrictions, however, and even composed an entire piano sonata (No. 12) with this technique.  There is a wealth of musical inventiveness here for those who can do without the comfort of tonality. Indeed, No. 5 can honestly be called “pretty.”

Interestingly, the first of Ned Rorem’s Eight Etudes is also constructed in contrary motion, and the fifth can also be described as “pretty,” although for me, his are the most difficult to digest of the three groups.  They were commissioned in 1975 by Emanuel Ax, who gave the premiere the following year.  Although the body of Rorem’s work might be likened to Samuel Barber’s, but with a stronger French accent, he has by now amassed quite a sizable oeuvre, and much of his more recent output is quite angular in its materials and austere in character.  Listeners who identify him with his best-known songs will be surprised to hear these pieces.

And although George Perle’s reputation is unquestionably identified with his involvement in the history and practice of twelve-tone composition, his own music has been devoted to what he calls “twelve-tone tonality.”  While the alleged “tonality” of this music may be more theoretical than audible, there is no question but that these pieces are exceptionally lucid, graceful, and neat — indeed, probably the most accessible of the three groups.  In fact, the music of Perle and Persichetti converged so closely at this point in their careers that one wonders just how each regarded the other.