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20th Century Masterpieces for 2 Pianos & Orchestra - Volume 1
Nikolai Lvovivh LOPATNIKOFF (1903-1976)
Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra, Op.33 (1949-1950) [18:06]
Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Suite for 2 Pianos & Orchestra (1928) [21:12]
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973)
Dialoghi VII for 2 Pianos & Orchestra (1956) [12:44]
Nicolai Tikhonovich BEREZOVSKY (1900-1953)
Fantasie for 2 Pianos & Orchestra, Op.9 (1931) [10:51]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto in D minor for 2 Pianos & Orchestra (1932) [19:05]
Robert STARER (1924-2001)
Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra (1993) [20:50]
Paul CRESTON (1906-1985)
Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra, Op.50 (1951) [23:42]
Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas (piano duo)
Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio & Television/David Amos
Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Carlos Piantini (Starer)
rec. 1992-97, Great Hall of Polish Radio, Katowice (Berezovsky, Poulenc, Creston), Dom Umennia, Kosice, Slovakia (Lopatnikoff, Tansman, Malipiero), Broadcast Hall of Czech Racio, Czech Republic (Starer)
MSR CLASSICS MS1651 [62:53 + 63:37]

This is an excellent collection of seven 20th Century concertante works for 2 pianos and orchestra. The quality of the music-making is very high, the interest value in the repertoire equally elevated and all backed up with bright and bold engineering and a highly detailed and informative liner note. MSR classics have brought together previously released recordings dating back to 1994 and combined them in a pair of well-filled and well programmed discs. The good news continues in that this is volume one of a project with volume two promised to include further six works. According to the discography on Joshua Pierce’s website [http://www.piercepiano.com/duodisc.html] the current compilation has been created from three previous discs; the Poulenc, Berezovsky & Creston on a Kleos Classics discs titled Pierce & Jonas play great two-piano concertos of the 20th Century, a Centaur records release of the Lopatnikoff, Tansman and Malipiero, and finally part of a mixed programme called Modern American Classics Vol.5 on MMC recordings which featured the Starer. So, while these performances at the time of recording might have been ‘world premieres’ this new version of those discs is in effect a re-release. One thing to note – I see on the MSR website that other reviews of this re-release comment on the improved sound quality of the remastering. I have not heard the original releases to make that comparison – suffice to say the sound as presented here is very good indeed

All but one I had not previously encountered and I am truly delighted to make good that omission now. There are several telling features consistent across all the works. One of the main ones is the calibre of the musical invention exhibited by the composers. Given that of the seven composers, three were wholly unknown to me, three more known but in no great detail [Tansman, Malipiero and Creston] which leaves only Poulenc as anything like a well-known figure and his 2 Piano Concerto a certain masterpiece. But even in that company, by no means do the works by Lopatnikoff or Berezovsky pale into insignificance. Far from it. Disc one opens with all musical guns blazing with the Lopatnikoff concerto. This work dives into the musical argument all spiky neo-classical energy, bristling with attitude and attack. Any concerns that this technically demanding music might be a read-record session too far for the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra prove wholly unfounded as well. Just the reverse, not only are all sections of the orchestra comfortably on top of the notes but there’s time for some real characterisation as well. Great credit for this must go to conductor David Amos, who has been at the helm of many similar discs, for getting the orchestra to play this unfamiliar and tricky music with such élan and commitment. And this is before I make any mention of the wholly remarkable playing of Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas. Putting to one side any technical issues, which across the two discs sound very demanding, what struck me throughout was the remarkable unanimity of playing between these two players. The engineering places each piano rather effectively just to the left and right of centre on the stereo stage but the interplay between the parts, the even-ness of their phrasing, the utter equality of attack, articulation and instrumental balance is hugely impressive.

The extended and very informative liner essay by Eric Salzman makes the valid point that all of the music presented here adheres to some degree to the spirit of neo-classicism. In turn this implies aspects of the Concerto Grosso with a concertante group (here the 2 pianos) and a ripieno/orchestral group. Pierce & Jonas’ flawless ensemble reinforces that sense of the concertante ‘group’. I suppose a case could be made that the opening of the Lopatnikoff concerto is just too unrelenting, too unvaried but all doubts are carried away here by the sheer energy and delight in the music-making. The contrast to the central Andante - all cool walking bass lines and clean textures is a delight. As is the closing high spirited Allegro molto vivace. Another feature of several of the works featured is a blurring of the use of highly rhythmical sections – moments when it teeters on the edge of jazz rhythms or is just highly syncopated. A kind of jazz-fugue idea starts in the finale but is swept away before it can really establish itself. In its place a whirling moto perpetuo is in turn halted by a brief moment of quiet reflection for the solo keyboards before a fast dash to the finish line.

Alexandre Tansman’s Suite for 2 Pianos and Orchestra is both the earliest work presented here and the longest. In effect this is a four-movement suite where the finale is a self-contained theme, five variations, double-fugue and finale. As Salzman says, when this was written in 1928, Tansman was at the height of his (transient) fame. So no surprise that this work absolutely bursts with confidence. He wrote it in Paris as a vehicle for himself to play with contemporary music specialist Robert Schmitz. Also no surprise, given the cultural melting pot that was 1920’s Paris this work dips its musical toe into everything from neo-classicism to European-inflected jazz, via pastoral simplicity and Eastern European mechanistic factory music. Given how much material Tansman packs into the twenty- one-minute span it feels as though there is just a tad of musical showing off going on both in the sense of composer and executant. But that does not diminish the instant attraction of the work and the bravura playing of all concerned here adds to the delight. I see that there is one other version of this work from Dux, coupled with Szymanowski; Tansman was born in Poland after all. I streamed a brief excerpt of the third movement Perpetuum Mobile. The Dux performance is neat and precise but frankly safe and just a little dull when set alongside the whirling, dizzying brilliance of Pierce & Jonas – this is the kind of work that seems to say “if you've got it, flaunt it...” Tansman the composer does flaunt his technical skill in the closing Variations, Double-Fugue and Finale. The opening theme is beautifully played by the Slovak principal horn with the mellow sound of Eastern European brass playing that has all but disappeared since this recording was made in the early 90’s. I must admit I loved that sound; likewise, the woody-toned woodwind who lead the stately Variation 3 Sarabande. More ensemble-testing brilliance follows in the 4th variation Tarantella. The closing Double fugue and finale is the work’s longest single span and as the title might imply the most neo-baroque; it builds towards a rather stern ending, although with just over a minute to go Tansman remembers he is from the 20th century and the harmonies and rhythms dissolve into something altogether more chromium-plated. I am not quite sure that the ending works, the wrench from the overtly ‘serious’ to something verging on the cinematic feels slightly contrived but again the energy and conviction of this particular performance bats away any enduring concerns.

Malipiero’s Dialoghi VII is a work more focused on weighty musical matters. The exchange of musical material from each piano and in turn the orchestral group, certainly creates the impression of a dialogue. In 2013 a two-disc set was released of all eight of Malipiero’s Dialoghi on the Stradivarius label from the Orchestra Nuova Filarmonica, with Domenico Molinini conducting and Annamaria Strano and Filippo Balducci as the two pianists. A streamed comparison of an excerpt from that other version is sonically unfair but that newer version takes, apparently, 16:36 compared to the performance here at 12:44. Again, the incisive rapier-like precision of Pierce & Jonas seems especially suited to this style of music. My only observation about this Malipiero work is that it is a serious work that takes itself rather seriously. What I rather enjoy about nearly all the rest of the works in this set is the skittish-ness of them. But that said Malipiero’s handling of the relatively small orchestral group is effective and impressive, especially the closing Allegro which has the most echoes of Stravinsky in its angular energy.

The second disc opens with the wonderful Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor. Here of course the competition is much more intense with numerous rival versions jostling for one’s attention. The performers range from the composer himself through just about every piano duet and French music specialist conceivable. All credit then that is such esteemed company Pierce and Jonas, and this recording, hold their own. David Amos is still on the podium but now in front of the National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio & Television. They prove to be just as engaged and as well-prepared as their Slovak colleagues.

Of greater interest is how in the context of this collection the Poulenc fits so perfectly into the mould of the other neo-classical, slightly emotionally brittle music. Likewise there is an interpretative continuity that binds this performance to the others here. Pierce & Jonas favour a consciously brilliant super-articulate style with razor sharp ensemble between both themselves and the accompanying orchestral group. This is a very valid approach for a work born in the early 1930’s which sought to eschew the emotional Romanticism of preceding times. But even Poulenc cannot resist writing one of his most meltingly tender melodies for the central Larghetto, which this performance gives the exact amount of Classical-poise and grace. It is interesting though to compare this with say the Decca account from Pascal Rogé and Sylviane Deferne conducted by Charles Dutoit. This performances bubbles and chuckles where Pierce & Jonas glitter. The Decca recording brings a degree of warmth to the interpretation which the current version chooses not to emphasise. To be honest both are mightily impressive.

Robert Starer’s concerto follows and this is the work I enjoyed least in this collection. No accident that in part this is down to a different conductor and orchestra as well I think – the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra is still perfectly good, but somehow less polished and engaged than their Polish counterparts. The engineering is still rather bright, but less ingratiating. My main problem is that the work, still very much in the neo-classical mould, struggles to be as musically interesting as the rest of the works gathered here. Too often Starer’s solution to the two piano conundrum is to toss a phrase or motif from one keyboard to the other and back again. Of course, this will occur in any such work but somehow here it becomes a repetitious feature. Also, Starer does not seem quite certain which side of the neo-classical/jazz-influenced divide he should come down on with the result that he rather falls between the two stools. Sitting between the Poulenc and the Creston concerti is a big ask as it is over-shadowed by both. David Amos and his Polish orchestra return for the concluding Creston concerto and the higher musical values are immediately reasserted. Creston’s music is gradually appearing on disc – I think we still need his 6th and final symphony amongst other works – but I cannot find a competing version of this concerto. This surprises me, because it is easily and instantly appealing; the central Andante Pastorale in particular builds from an attractive opening meditation to a stormily dramatic climax. The scurrying closing Allegro vivo rather shows Robert Starer how to write a movement that has the syncopating excitement of jazz influences without getting bogged down in ‘standard’ gestures. It’s a wonderfully high-spirited and dynamic conclusion to both this work and the collection.

So, without doubt, a pair of discs that retain their value and quality nearly 25 years after their original release. As technical recordings these are not demonstration class but the energy, skill and evident delight in the music making more than compensates for that. Add the excellent documentation and this is a release that deserves to be acclaimed all over again. Volume 2 is eagerly anticipated.

Nick Barnard

 




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