American Works for Piano Duo
Diamond: Concerto For Two Solo Pianos
Georgina And Louise Mangos, Pianos
CD Number: Cedille CDR 90000 069
The Chicago-raised Mangos sisters, who have received excellent notices for their recordings of the complete Liszt symphonic poems in two-piano arrangements, now offer a generous selection of mostly seldom-heard American repertoire. Of special note are two works by Vincent Persichetti, a sonata for two pianos of 1940 and a "concerto" for piano four-hands of 1952. (Persichetti often performed with wife Dorothea Flannigan, and recorded the Concerto with her for Columbia in mono days.) The two pieces are strikingly different. The four-movement Sonata, less than 11 minutes long, follows a baroque slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, though the musical idiom is altogether modern (slightly recalling Schoenberg's mid-1920s piano music, though with a tonal base). The Concerto, at 21 minutes, is a single movement in a more expressionistic style, alternating brooding and maniacally fast sections. Both works are highly satisfying: stirring and full of surprising contrasts (though rhythmic steadiness is almost always demanded of the performers), with plenty of opportunity for virtuoso display. The composer, according to the CD program note, has said that his music falls into two categories, "graceful" and "gritty." Neither word suits either of these works, though if something can be both "granite-like" and "quirky" at the same time, these pieces fit the bill.
Separating the two Persichetti works on the CD is Samuel Barber's 1952 Souvenirs. This is perhaps an unfortunate juxtaposition; the Barber suite is at once witty and sentimental, parodistic and nostalgic, and thus utterly different from the monumentally serious and abstract Persichetti works. Barber said he wanted to invoke the sound world of the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court, circa 1914; one wonders if he had Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales in mind as well, at least for the opening "Waltz," though some bitonal moments equally suggest Milhaud's playful treatments of popular music, such as Le Boeuf sur le toit. The overall style is recognizably Barber's, though certainly in a light vein for him, with sections titled "Schottische," "Two-Step," "Hesitation-Tango" and "Galop." The work seems quite idiomatic as piano music, though it is better known in its adaptation as an orchestral ballet.
Of the same generation as Persichetti and Barber, David Diamond is best known as a symphonist. Slightly more traditional in style than the Persichetti works, Diamond's three-movement Concerto for Two Pianos opens with a march-rhythm movement on a grand scale, with surprising lurches into more rapid bursts of notes. The briefer slow movement begins with some delicacy before building to a massive climax and falling back to the gentle opening. The finale is fleet and lighter-textured throughout, with some material that echoes Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony.
Rounding out the disc is a more recent work by a lesser-known composer: Joseph Fennimore's 1981 Crystal Stairs, "inspired," as the program notes explain, by a Langston Hughes poem, "Mother to Son," which contains the line "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." Curiously, Fennimore imagined the hard-working mother of the poem as "yearning to be a starlet in one of Busby Berkeley's extravaganzas." The 11-minute "Fantasia" has an opening blue-noted "Broadway Glamor" sort of theme, followed by a more plaintive theme embellished with Lisztian filigree. A rather tormented tango section follows, and the "Broadway" theme returns amid more extravagantly Lisztian cascades. Throughout, patterns of rising notes and some pounding rhythms may suggest the climbing of stairs. It is an altogether odd piece that -- like all the works on the program -- deserves repeated listening.
The Mangos sisters meet the challenges of all these works admirably, with
flawless ensemble work. One might wish for a little more swaggering flair in
the most playful moments of Barber's Souvenirs, but the more serious
pieces on the program are played with grandeur and incisiveness. Cedille's
sound is impressive: the massive climaxes that two pianos (or one
four-hands) can achieve are never "clangy" or thick-sounding, but rather
rich, clear and altogether splendid.