March 25, 2010


George Rochberg: Circles of Fire. Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo (Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas). Naxos. $8.99.

Zenobia Powell Perry: Spirituals, Art Songs and Chamber Music. Janis-Rozena Peri, soprano; Darryl Taylor, tenor; Joyce Catafalno, flute; Berkeley Price, clarinet; John Crotty, piano; Deon Nielsen Price, piano. Cambria. $16.99.

     There is no more ambitious work in the two-piano literature than Circles of Fire by George Rochberg (1918-2005). Written in 1996-7 for the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo, it is a 15-movement, 70-minute tour de force of musical language, particularly in the 20th century but also, to some extent, dating back to Bach and before. Opening and closing with a “Solemn Refrain” that also appears three other times and knits the sprawling work into a somewhat more unified whole, Rochberg’s piece explores his own musical journey – from the modernism and serial composition at which he was highly skilled (as in his Symphony No. 2 from the mid-1950s), through his decision to turn against what he saw as academic and unemotional compositional techniques and use the approaches of Romanticism to convey feelings that he felt were neglected in serialism. Never really a neo-Romantic, Rochberg made post-Romantic emotionalism his own through his accretive technique, and in Circles of Fire he shows just how thoroughly he assimilated both older-style and newer-style pianistic writing as well as elements of the compositional process. The work is an arch, its eighth (middle) movement being the third appearance of “Solemn Refrain” and its second and 14th movements designated “Chiaroscuro (I)” and “Chiaroscuro (II).” In between are elements tied formally to the Baroque (“Canonic Variations,” “The Infinite Ricercar,” “Fuga a sei voci”) but expressed in Rochberg’s own musical vocabulary, which ranges from the carefully ordered to the near-chaotic (thus paralleling musical history itself). Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas play this monumental work sure-handedly and with tremendous understanding, and this recording – a re-release of a performance from 1998 – deserves to be described as definitive. But this is not immediately accessible music, and Circles of Fire does have a somewhat narrow range of sounds, because of the inherent limitations of the piano’s percussive timbre. Although there is certainly emotion packed into the piece, it comes across more as an intellectually impressive structural exercise than as a work that speaks clearly and immediately to listeners. It is unquestionably a triumph on its own terms, but those terms are not ones that audiences will necessarily find appealing.

     On the other hand, there is immediate appeal to many of the works by Rochberg’s contemporary American composer, Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004). Although better known as a civil-rights pioneer and educator – primarily at traditionally black colleges – Perry wrote more than 150 works in a wide variety of styles and formats. But few have been recorded – the new Cambria CD is the first devoted solely to Perry’s music. The most accessible pieces here are her settings of spirituals: Hallelujah to the Lamb, O de Angels Done Bowed Down and Sinner Man So Hard, Believe! These works have interesting parallels – and contrasts – with The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, based on Arabic and Persian texts by the founder of the Baháí faith and set rather ethereally by Perry for soprano, flute and piano. Other song groups here are more straightforward and less stylistically notable: Cycle of Songs on Poems by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Threnody Song Cycle (poetry by Donald Jeffrey Hayes), and three excerpts from the six-song Heritage and Life (poetry by Frank Horne), followed here by the short How Charming Is the Place (words by Samuel Stennett). Taken as a whole, the songs are more expressive and seem more heartfelt than Perry’s instrumental works in traditional forms, which on this disc include her Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and Sonatine for Piano, both from 1963. But three of the 15 little solo-piano works collected in 1990 as Piano Potpourri are miniature delights: Homage to William Levi Dawson on His 90th Birthday, Promenade (which Perry wrote as a more-joyful alternative to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1), and Flight. The performers are first-rate on a CD that meanders a bit aimlessly while seeking to encompass the various forms in which Perry worked; and if not all the pieces are equally impressive, some of them are certainly worth hearing – and re-hearing from time to time.

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