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Romantic Music for Piano Four-Hands
Onslow: Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 7 for Piano Four-Hands;
Sonata No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 22
Reger: Six Burlesques, Op. 58, Nos. 4, 5, 6
Wagner: Polonaise in D
Liszt: Grand Valsedi Bravura, Op. 6
Grieg: Norwegian Dances, Op. 35, Nos. 2, 3
Balakirev: Suite for Piano Four-Hands
Elizabeth Buccheri, Richard Boldrey, piano duettist
Review By Joe Milicia

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  The CD at hand is a reissue of recordings made in 1978 and 1985 for the Spectrum label. Thanks to the Cedille label and engineer Bill Maylone, some rousing performances of delightful but rarely heard music are newly available in beautifully restored sound.

Elizabeth Buccheri and Richard Boldrey have been a vital part of the Chicago classical music scene (as performers, educators, organizers) for many years in far too many ways to list here. Besides their independent careers, they performed as the Buccheri/Boldrey Piano Duet, playing live for WFMT-FM, among other venues. Here, rather than the celebrated classics of the four-hands repertoire--Mozart, Schubert, the dances of Brahms and Dvorak--the duo offer music most listeners will never have encountered (other than a couple of Grieg Norwegian Dances).

The music of Georges Onslow occupies a good half of the CD: his First and Second Sonatas for Piano Four-Hands respectively open and close the program. The booklet essay by Janice Marciano is rather misleading: Onslow was not "an Englishman born in France " but a French composer born in France to an English father, in 1784 (a couple of years before Carl Maria von Weber but living longer, into the 1850s). Ranked during his lifetime among the very greatest of composers, Onslow was certainly a prolific one in the field of chamber music (36 string quartets and nearly as many string quintets), and wrote five solo piano sonatas, four symphonies and a few operas as well. Possibly no composer has ever had so complete a fall from such prominence to obscurity. But CD companies like cpo and MD&G are currently attempting to make amends, and Cedille's reissue is a welcome addition.

Onslow's four-hands sonatas sound like the composer had learned from Beethoven but was living in the world of Weber. Both works are in three movements. The First opens with a dramatic Allegro espressivo, followed by a Romanza — a simple ballad with stormy interludes — and an Agitato finale that has some surprisingly jolly, Weberesque dance-like rhythms. Buccheri and Boldrey are splendidly energetic, with a strong sense of rhythmic propulsion, though one might wish for a softer touch, a more "moonlit" atmosphere, in the gentler parts of the Romanza. The Second Sonata seems a bit more complex, more deeply Romantic. Its opening Allegro moderato e patetico looks back rather strongly to pathos-charged moments in mid-career Beethoven, though the movement's second subject is more jauntily Classical. The Minuetto that follows has (to my ears) nothing remotely minuet-like about it, other than a moderate three-quarters rhythm; but it's an interestingly brooding piece in a minor key, with a waltzlike trio section in a major key. The finale features a Largo introduction to an Allegro espressivo, perhaps the most engaging of all the Onslow movements for its agitated, propulsive and syncopated main subject. The duo are again at their best in the outer movements, especially the finale.

The rest of the program is good fun. Max Reger's Burlesques are, as one would expect from this composer, both vigorous and "intellectual." No. 4, marked "Quick and grotesque," could be a gnomes' dance. No. 5, "Quick and fleeting to the utmost," seems less distinctive (and far from headlong, especially with its recurring slower-paced sections), but No. 6 is a grandiose though short fantasia on Ach du lieberAugustin. Richard Wagner's Polonaise is an early work, from 1831, with an exuberant stateliness that — except for the distinct "Polish" rhythm — would not be out of place in some of the composer's early operas (Act II of Tannhäusser, perhaps). Franz Liszt's Grand Valsedi Bravura was originally, according to the booklet essay, for solo piano, with the four-hands version having "some doubt as to its origin." But no matter—the tuneful, swirling waltz with an almost can-can coda, is an effective display piece for the duo.

Mily Balakirev, whose most famous work nowadays may be Islamey, one of the ultimate virtuoso pieces for Romantic solo piano, is represented by a three-movement Suite. Another Polonaise opens the Suite, a more haughty and mood-shifting than Wagner's. The "little song without words" that follows — evidently a Russian tune — is calm throughout, lovingly played by the duo. The Scherzo that concludes the Suite is genial rather than frantic or "show-off-y."

To round off the program we have two of Grieg's Norwegian Dances. No. 2 is performed with as much "tranquility and grace" as the score calls for, with a more thunderous middle section, while the march-like No. 3 is full of joyful energy (here with a suitably tranquil middle section).

Engineer Maylone has done a remarkable job of matching the sounds of the two recordings made seven years apart and of working with the deterioration of one of the analog master tapes; it's too bad for audiophiles that the detailed description of the process in Cedille's publicity materials is not included in the CD booklet. The piano sound is rich and full, never clattering. Some listeners may find that the big sound of piano four-hands over the course of 76 minutes may be a rich diet indeed, but fans of piano duets should find this CD an indispensable one.

 

 

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