March 09, 2023


Pierre Max Dubois: Concerto Italien for Two Pianos and Orchestra; Roy Harris: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra; Arthur Benjamin: North American Square Dance Suite for Two Pianos and Orchestra; Walter Piston: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra; Quincy Porter: Concerto Concertante for Two Pianos and Orchestra; Morton Gould: Dance Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas, pianos; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonic Society of Moravia conducted by David Amos. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

Edward Hart: Under an Indigo Sky; A Charleston Concerto. Yuriy Becker, violin; Harlem Quartet (Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violins; Jaime Amador, viola; Felix Umansky, cello); Charleston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ken Lam. Navona. $14.99.

     The mid-20th century seems to have been a hotbed of composition for two pianos and orchestra – at least on the basis of an MSR Classics CD featuring remasterings of six world première recordings of music from that time period. But because these are world premières, it would seem that pieces for this particular combination of instruments have lain fallow for decades – a difficult-to-understand situation in light of the quality of the music, and one that this recording, featuring Joshua Pierce and Dorothy James, may go some distance to rectify. The most-recent work on this release is the first, Concerto Italien (1962) by Pierre Max Dubois (1930-1995). This is a bright and sprightly piece that uses dissonance judiciously and sandwiches a pleasantly flowing central Andante between propulsive outer movements. It whets the appetite for more music by Dubois, who is probably the least-known of the composers heard here. His work is followed by Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1946) by Roy Harris (1898-1979), a more-substantial piece that neatly absorbs and somewhat reinterprets the Toccata concept in its first movement, offers an extended Theme and Variations with some attractive brass elements in its second, and concludes with a Jig that is full of high spirits, if not particularly danceable. Offered next, and much more apt for the dance floor, is North American Square Dance Suite (1950) by Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), any of whose eight short movements (lasting from less than a minute to two-and-a-half) would make a delightful encore: even the slower ones are full of good spirits, the rhythms are always clear and gentle in their flow, and the occasional touches of sly humor (notably in The Old Plunk, Fill the Bowl [shades of Pianists in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals!] and Pigeon on the Pier) are worthy of some out-loud chuckling and even a guffaw or two. Pierce and Jonas play all the music with great zest, and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor provides top-notch, highly enthusiastic accompaniment. The conductor featured on the second CD is David Amos, and he too seems thoroughly captivated by the music. This disc opens with Concerto for Two Pianos (1958-59) by Walter Piston (1894-1976), which is cast in the traditional three movements. This is a mostly serious work that carefully explores ways in which two pianos can be used for more expressiveness and drama than a single one – even the high-spirited finale is packed with intensity. This is followed by Concerto Concertante (1952) by Quincy Porter (1897-1966), an extended single movement notable for its contrasts between delicacy and strength. The release concludes with Dance Variations (1952) by Morton Gould (1913-1997), with four movements that encapsulate a bewildering variety of dance forms – especially the second, Arabesques, within whose four-and-a-half minutes Gould includes bits of a gavotte, pavane, polka, quadrille, minuet, waltz and can-can. Pierce and Jonas keep up with the constant changes of rhythm and emphasis without apparent effort, proving as adept in the micro-miniatures as in the more-extended, Piazzolla-ish Pas de deux (Tango) and the devil-may-care concluding Tarantella. These recordings date to between 1989 and 2001, and all stand the test of time quite well. In fact, so does the music itself – making it more than slightly surprising that none of these pieces ever became especially well-known or had ever been recorded before the original release of these first-rate performances.

     Edward Hart’s music on a new (+++) Navona CD explores geographically rather than in terms of instrumentation. This disc too contains a world première recording: A Charleston Concerto, based on Hart’s long association with that South Carolina city, where he was born. The work is for string quartet plus orchestra and is intended to be a sort of history-and-evaluation of the city: its three movements are called Discovery, Tragedy and Reconciliation, and Tomorrow. Hart (born 1965) clearly intends specific references within all the movements, but non-natives and non-residents will hear nothing in this work except an often-interesting juxtaposition of string quartet with full orchestra and some less-than-engaging attempts to portray the topics mentioned in the movement titles – contrasting, for example, highly dissonant sections for negative elements with more-consonant and sometimes lyrical ones for hopeful material. After the first two movements, the yearning violin that opens the third in its higher register is pretty much to be expected, and the eventual triumphal conclusion (reserved for the final minute of the piece) is a foregone conclusion. The work is well-crafted and is understandably played with enthusiasm by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra under Ken Lam; but it is not especially attractive from a purely musical standpoint, and seems to be intended mainly for a local audience that will appreciate the foundational history on which Hart has built his musical edifice. Under an Indigo Sky, a violin concerto, is a more successful piece: it too articulates Hart’s feelings about the geography of his home region, but there is less specificity and therefore greater universality of appeal in the material. The three movements are called Fast Flowing Rivers, Warm Salt Air, and Misty Blue Horizon, and one need not have any knowledge of or familiarity with Charleston or South Carolina to think about those titles and listen for ways in which the music reflects them Impressionistically or in terms of Hart’s personal feelings. The writing is in fact very personal: for example, the extended “fiddling”-style passages in the first movement have no apparent relation to water, and while the contrast of the solo violin with timpani is interesting, its reason for being (in the context of the movement’s tone painting) is less than clear. The second movement is quite long, at 16-and-a-half minutes, and seems to be about silence as much as about sound: the material is gentle to the point of being soporific. The finale features some well-thought-out percussion touches – Hart is fond of percussion – but is rhythmically unfocused and rather vapid in expression. Under an Indigo Sky might work even better if simply labeled as a violin concerto, without any attempt to relate the music to extramusical scenes: it has numerous attractive elements, an effective contemporary sound (although some elements are somewhat overdone in terms of dissonance), and often pulls in listeners through expressive sections even if some of those, especially in the second movement, are pushed too far. Hearing this concerto without trying to relate the music to the movement titles makes for a more-satisfying listening experience than hearing it with Hart’s intended referents.

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