Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Souvenirs, Op. 28 (arr. Gold/Fizdale) [17:20]
William BOLCOM (b.1938)
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
El Salón México (arr. Leonard Bernstein) [8:49]
Frederic RZEWSKI (b.1938)
Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues [9:31]
John ADAMS (b.1947)
Hallelujah Junction [14:38]
Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães (pianos)
rec. 20 June 2009 (“Valse Venezolano” from Recuerdos), 8-10 September 2014 (all other tracks), Endler Hall, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
TWOPIANISTS RECORDS TP1039220 [63:31]
This program of music for two pianos smartly pieces together a number of great, overlooked American pieces. There’s a common theme of travel and impressions of a place, from Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, which is meant to evoke the Plaza Hotel in New York in the year 1914, to Aaron Copland’s less specific evocation of his experiences in Mexico.
Though none of these pieces are pops favorites, I must take a moment to single out William Bolcom’s Recuerdos. Bolcom, a student of Milhaud and Messiaen, is one of America’s most fun composers, a specialist in ragtime piano and a gifted melodist. His Recuerdos are a triptych of uncannily accurate impressions of Latin-American composers, including a Venezuelan waltz and a spot-on homage to Brazilian pianist Ernesto Nazareth.
In truth, most of the music here is pure fun; Barber’s suite introduces a modicum of sophisticated 20th century harmony into a series of dances Johann Strauss or Emmanuel Chabrier would have loved. There is a strange transition in the second half, as we move from short, cheery “character pieces” to two muscular, bustling works in more serious vein. Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues is the type of piece a detractor might call a lot of noise, a florid and angry reworking of an African-American blues song. One can hear both the pain of America’s racial tension and the monotony of its industrial work. I don’t think this is the strongest piece on the album, but it certainly has its champions, including these two performers.
More to my taste is John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, similarly busy and antic but with a slow, minimalistic arc that bends toward jubilation. Halfway through the piece, a dramatic buildup that has turned coarse and harsh - at least in this unsubtle performance - relents, and is replaced with a divine melody you can imagine in a western landscape with gently clouded sky.
My colleague Dan Morgan wasn’t totally enthused with this album, rightly thinking the back-to-back combo of Rzewski and Adams was a little hard to sit through, and suggesting he’s not too fond of the Bolcom piece; I like it better. Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães, a married team, certainly have the rapport and easy communication you’d expect from such a close duo — though the cover photo doesn’t suggest it. They are frequently good interpreters, although I think the Adams could do well with a more relaxed, less rapid-fire approach. There are superior recordings available for several of these pieces, like the Adams and Copland, but you may well find that this recital combines several pieces missing from your collection, in which case you ought to give it a try.
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