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Robert PALMER (1915-2010)
Piano Music
Toccata Ostinato (1945) [2:19]
Second Sonata (1948) [12:30]
Three Epigrams (1957/58) [6:46]
Three Preludes (1941) [8:23]
Sonata for Two Pianos (1944) [14:15]
Morning Music (1973) [1:46]
Evening Music (1956) [2:08]
Sonata for Piano (1938 rev 1946) [18:12]
Transitions (1977) [4:28]
Interrupted Tango (1984) [2:32]
Adam Tendler (piano)
Joseph Kubera (piano - in Sonata for Two Pianos)
rec. 2018, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80809 [73:18]

There’s quite a queue of excuses for our personal parnassus of North American composers being restricted to Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein. Even if we have found sustenance and excitement from wider horizons: perhaps Harris, Schuman, Menotti, Sessions, Hanson, Thompson, Mennin or Piston; there are, unsurprisingly, many others to examine. If we restrict ourselves to those no longer living I would recommend you sample the works of Giannini, Effinger (symphonies 3, 4, 5 are very considerable achievements), Haussermann, Rogers, Rosner, Ward, Walker, LaMontaine, Bergsma, Kay and Gardner Read. Robert Palmer ranks in that list; perhaps in terms of recognition his music comes from the level below that.

He was born in Syracuse, New York. Like so many, he studied at the Eastman School with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. There were further studies with Quincy Porter, Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. In 1948 Copland wrote in the New York Times of Palmer and six of his contemporaries that he was "representative of some of the best we have to offer the new generation". From 1943 until his retirement in 1980, Palmer was on the faculty of Cornell University for many years

Among his crowded work-list can be found two symphonies (1953, 1966), the 40-minute oratorio Nabuchodonosor (1964), piano concerto (1971), four string quartets (1939, 1943, 1954, 1960) and three piano sonatas (1938, 1948, 1979). The piano music on this New World CD was written over four decades. It consists of short movements. Palmer does not mistake loquacity for eloquence. His music is leanly presented and here crisply articulated. It drips melodically informed vitality and reflection rather than the moisture of romanticism.

The Toccata Ostinato radiates boogie-woogie energy and a seeming affinity with Constant Lambert, Prokofiev and Conlon Nancarrow. It was composed for and recorded by William Kapell. The Second Sonata is in two movements: an Andante con moto tranquillo, which is cool, insistent and has something of CatÚdrale engloutie but with a faster pulse; and an urgent and varied, gawkily awkward Allegro agitato. The Three Epigrams are dry, insistent and clean, yet presented in a subtle and shifting harmonic world. The Three Preludes are a shade more yielding with a simplicity of line that is proud of not hiding in complexity. The opening Vivace con grazia is peckingly quick but with an instinctually slower melody over the top.

The Sonata for Two Pianos has Tendler joined by Joseph Kubera in a work whose melodic tendencies have a purposeful clarity and whose melodic world recalls Milhaud. The piece pivots around a central Andante sostenuto: slow and darkening. Morning Music carries the bright and confident sense of setting out on a journey. It has hip-swaying gait and a sentimental tendency. It shows more vulnerability than Palmer’s works of the 1940s. The sometimes dew-fresh Evening Music might have been inspired by Chaucer’s “When in April the sweet showers fall”. Back in time to the Piano Sonata (No. 1). Its Allegro vivace thrives on hard-nosed smiles, a fog-wreathed Andante cantabile and the ruffled water and broken reflections of the final Allegro energico. Transitions from 1977, a piece of solipsistic meditation paves the way for Interrupted Tango a kindred echo, across the decades, of the slightly shorter Toccata Ostinato.

The work-specific essay fulfils New World’s usual standards and runs to 11 pages. It’s by Daniel Johnson. There’s also a nice note and response to the question “Who is Robert Palmer” and the answer is given by Adam Tendler. You can come up with your own answers by hearing this disc and examining two articles which are referenced by New World (Duffie and Stucky).

Rob Barnett



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