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William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Recuerdos (1991) [13:22]
Frescoes for two pianos, harmonium, and harpsichord (arr. 2 pianos) (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. 7-10 January, 2005, Rolston Recital Hall, The Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Canada. DDD
NAXOS 8.559244 [72:15]

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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.

Recuerdos, (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 qualities.

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 sound.

Adam Binks

see also Review by Dominy Clements December Bargain of the Month



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