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Harold SHAPERO (1920-2013)
Piano music
Sonata in F minor (1948) [37:34]
Variations in C minor (1947) [22:30]
Four-Hand Sonata (1941) [14:53]
Sally Pinkas (piano)
Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo with Sally Pinkas (piano) and Evan Hirsch (piano; secundo)
rec. June and September (Variations) 2013, Fraser Performance Studio, WGBH Radio, Boston
TOCCATA TOCC0211 [74:49]

Harold Shapero, pupil of Krenek, Piston and Hindemith, contemporary of Bernstein, and considered the shining light of his generation of American composers, is here represented by three early piano works. They are presented in reverse chronological order.

The Sonata in F minor was written in 1948, and is loosely speaking a neo-classical sonata allegro. It is a lengthy work, over thirty-seven minutes in this performance. After the confident opening Shapero draws his material in contrasting ideas, and presents an Arioso second movement which consists of a theme and a series of six variations. Quite spare and reflective, there is delicacy and warm textures. However, even with faster variations and variety of tempos, the music remains desperately overlong and certain recurring motifs in both treble and bass do little to develop the musical argument. The finale starts as an effervescent Rondo but the garrulous Shapero seems incapable of any kind of real compression. At the premiere the sonata was hissed by George Perle who sarcastically said ‘Hurrah for Beethoven!’ which, even so, is not much of a reflection on Perle’s critical judgement.

The Variations in C minor was written the previous year, an adagio with limited dynamics throughout. Faster sections do provide some balance and contrast and there is some sweetly lyric writing but his use of the kind of bass and treble gestures that mired the F minor Sonata are present too in the earlier work, and equally unsatisfactorily. Gestures are too limited, the writing lacks colour and variety, and there’s an obsessive quality that becomes wearying. The Four-Hand Sonata was written was he was 21, and he performed it with Bernstein. Just over a decade later Shapero recorded it with Leo Smit for Columbia. Far more compact than the companion works it at least has a sense of verve and even aggression, and its neo-classicism, whilst derivative, shows some distinctive features. It’s the most fresh-sounding of the three works, though not necessarily the most advanced.

Pinkas is a committed exponent of Shapero’s music, assisted by Evan Hirsch in the Four-Hand Sonata. I hope others enjoy it much more than I did.

Jonathan Woolf