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William BOLCOM (b.1938)
Recuerdos (1991) [13:22]
Frescoes for two pianos, harmonium and harpsichord (1971) [28:18]
Sonata for Two Pianos in One Movement (1993) [15:40]
Interlude (1963, rev. 1965) [4:03]
The Serpent’s Kiss (Ragtime) (1969, arr. 1994) [5:37]
Through Eden’s Gates (Cakewalk) (1969, arr. 1994) [5:13]
Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann (pianos)
Rec. Boston Recital Hall, Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta, Canada; 7-10 Jan 2005.
NAXOS 8.559244 [72:15]

I must admit to being a complete newcomer to the music of William Bolcom, and I shall be eternally grateful to Naxos for introducing us. Norman Lebrecht (Complete Companion to 20th Century Music) is mildly dismissive, summing him up as a ‘Crossover composer between jazz and classics’, so I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over with anything as intense and dramatic as much of the work on this disc.

Bolcom was partly responsible for rescuing the American Ragtime style from obscurity in the late 1960s, and the last two pieces are recent arrangements of works originally for solo piano. This CD begins with Recuerdos (Reminiscences), which derives from Latin American dance forms. Bolcom has in the past quite legitimately drawn on American musical traditions much as a European composer might refer to classical models. In taking Latin American music as his springboard he has created three entirely new, and at the same time completely authentic-sounding dance movements. If they sound facile to contemporary music buffs or composition students they should try making something similar and finding out how hard it is. These pieces are superbly written for the two pianos and infectious in the extreme.

The rest of this CD has me grasping for superlatives like a sports commentator whose home side is unexpectedly winning everything in the Olympics. Frescoes adds a harmonium and a harpsichord to the mix, and the first entry of the pedal organ, emerging from sustained piano chords is quite magical. There is no instrumentarium listed here, and I suspect this ‘harmonium’ is in fact an American organ: its rather muffled and doleful sound, while completely appropriate for this music, is completely unlike the reedy, slightly nasal acidity of a ‘proper’ harmonium in the French or German tradition. For trivia seekers, the bellows of a harmonium blows air over the reeds, an American organ sucks, if you will excuse the expression. While I am having my one moment of criticism, the harpsichord also sounds a little thin and distant. In The Netherlands we are of course spoiled a little by having contemporary harpsichord music being played on meaty instruments like that of Annelie de Man. I feel the recorded balance might have been tweaked a little more in its favour, though I freely admit it might well accurately reflect the effect in a concert hall. Each instrument is slightly out of tune as well, but I think Bolcom is having us on a little here: not long into the first movement ‘War in Heaven’ (2:42), each instrument has a moment on one and the same note. Knowing darn well there is no way a piano, a harmonium and a harpsichord can ever really be in tune with each other, Bolcom seems to be teasing our senses, and pointing out another little aspect of his ‘War’ at the same time. Brief moans aside, this is a roller-coaster ride of powerful ideas. The pianos set in, Saint-Saëns like, with punching chords and octave scales – the carnival of animals arriving in ‘Madagascar’. This is serious, strong stuff however, and the listener is drawn along by grand tonal gestures, polytonal juxtapositions, rhythmic contrasts and the occasional ‘persiflage’, the whole of which could be inchoate and disorientating, but which somehow isn’t. There is a remarkable and chilling section in the second movement, ‘The Caves of Orcus’, where an initial low cluster in the harmonium is set against soft, dryly clattering impacts on the piano strings – good material for spooking boring and unwanted guests.

The Sonata begins with a firm, serialist-sounding statement, and continues in this intense, tightly argued vein for the much of its 15 minute duration. Bolcom has a Poulenc moment at 2:25, the melody in octaves reminiscent of the end of the first movement of Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for two pianos, this time without the ‘gamelan’ effects. There are other, more direct quotations from Schönberg and Debussy as well. These moments sometimes jump out like a familiar voice in a crowded room, but at the same time fit like a glove. The whole piece is a richly rewarding blockbuster to which I shall be returning often.

Interlude is described as being from the composer’s ‘total chromatic period’ and is the most relentlessly modern in idiom. Fleeting filigrees of notes, twists and turns of dynamic and extremes of range flow effortlessly from the fingers of the excellent Bergmann duo, which make a forceful argument for this mature sounding ‘jeugdwerk’. The final two rag pieces emerge from all of this concentrated forcefulness like a breath of fresh air. There is humour here in the tap-dancing pianists (listen, and you’ll find out what I mean) but the pieces are enriched with and never quite escape from that latent taint of angst: a hangover from the civil wars, repression, depressions, racism, crashes and dust-bowls which are part of the origins of this kind of jazz.

I love this CD more than anything else on my shelves at the moment, and want to keep it all to myself. It’s hard to believe Naxos can get away with selling such wonderful productions at the budget level they do. Stick a yellow plaque on it, triple the price, and many would be rejoicing at the refreshing and adventurous revival of a respected label which has lost its way a little in recent years. Naxos seems to conjure this sort of thing from their sleeve like a magician’s never-ending handkerchief – long may it remain so.

Dominy Clements



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