An extremely distinguished
figure in American Classical music, Bolcom is widely known as
both composer and teacher, having been resident at the University
of Michigan since 1973. A pupil of both Messiaen and Milhaud,
his early style was overtly serial. His approach to composition
was, however, to develop and mature significantly, following
his discovery of ragtime in the late 1960s. The final result
is an interesting amalgam of styles both American and European.
He does not turn his back on earlier serial techniques and the
influence of ragtime does not dominate. There is more here than
just serial techniques and ragtime, and this disc displays a
suitably versatile composer, who can combine his various influences
with some success.
The six varied works
on this disc, from Naxos’s ‘American Classics’ series, cover
a period of some thirty years in Bolcom’s compositional career
beginning in 1963. He is clearly at home in writing for two
pianos and is able to write convincingly in both a light and
a serious vein.
(the opening work of the disc) shows the lighter side of Bolcom’s
work, influenced here by Latin-American dances. Each of the
three pieces in this suite is dedicated to important figures
in both Latin and North American music, namely: Ernesto Nazareth,
the creator of the Brazilian street folk-song; Louis-Moreau
Gottschalk, America’s first virtuoso pianist and the Venezuelan
composer Ramón Delegado Palacios.
The most substantial
work in this recital, Frescoes, is considerably more
turbulent, potent and often pensive music. The back of the CD
erroneously states that it is arranged for two pianos,
whereas the arrangement on the disc is for two pianos, harpsichord
and harmonium for two players. It is split into two movements,
War in Heaven and The Caves of Orcus. Amongst
the conflict of the first movement, the harmonium lends a church-like
reverence, which is distorted with the contrasting harmonium.
The listener should however expect many more experimental qualities,
including aleatorical improvisation and at, times almost, minimalist
The most interesting
and perhaps the most impressive work, in terms of structure
is also the most recent – the Sonata for Two Pianos in One
Movement from 1993. Some of the meditative and reflective
slow-moving qualities of his teacher Messiaen can clearly be
heard. This is also combined with further serial techniques,
bitonal elements and flashes of ragtime and blues, creating
a varied mix with frequent juxtapositions of styles and moods.
The three movements of a typical sonata are reduced into one.
The remaining three
works (Interlude, The Serpent’s Kiss and Through
Eden’s Gates) are of a smaller scale. Interlude is
a prime example of Bolcom’s atonal compositional style from
the early 1960s. The two slightly later pieces were arranged
for two pianos from their original solo piano arrangement in
1994. They see a return to the more frivolous and yet demanding
approach and finish off a rounded and balanced programme.
The two pianists
on this disc, Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann, give focused and
intelligent performances, which - apart from a slightly distant
harpsichord in Frescoes - is combined with a clear recorded
see also Review
by Dominy Clements December Bargain
of the Month