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
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
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.