The five pieces on this album - all original works for two pianos or piano duet - sound distinctly American. While this statement is undeniable, it begs the question: What constitutes a distinctly American sound? The composers represented here employ very different compositional styles and harmonic languages. How then can they all be uniquely "American" in their sound?
The two pieces whose American-ness are easiest to explicate are Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, Op. 28 and Joseph Fennimore’s Crystal Stairs. Both have unmistakable roots in the quintessential American city, New York. In the preface to G. Schirmer’s 1954 publication of his piece, Barber wrote: "One might imagine a divertissement in a setting of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York... " Souvenirs bubbles with an energy and glamour that immediately conjure the bright lights of the big city. Although the six dances that make up Souvenirs have an international flair (right down to their titles), they all share a cosmopolitan feel, for everything has been filtered through New York’s eyes and ears.
Joseph Fennimore readily admits the influence of pop and Broadway on his music. From the opening measures of Crystal Stairs, one feels a Busby Berkeley production is about to begin. The raw energy of its initial explosion of sound is just what we expect to hear in a big budget Broadway production. And Crystal Stairs does not disappoint. It is a true musical extravaganza with massive chordal sections, exploitation of registers, jazzy syncopations, and convulsing rhythms. Listening to the piano duet version on this recording, it is often hard to believe (and easy to forget) that all this sound is coming from a single piano.
The two Persichetti works offer a very different, but equally "American" sound. Whereas Barber and Fennimore - in the pieces heard here at least - convey the more public American sonority of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, Persichetti presents a more personal American voice. Those lucky enough to have met Persichetti invariably came away impressed by his elegant charm and unpretentious manner. He unabashedly conveyed the delight he took in performing his music (he wrote the Concerto for Piano Four-Hands, Op. 56 for himself and his future wife Dorothea Flannigan) and at hearing his works performed by others. With his legendary skill, Persichetti fused these endearing personal qualities in his music: for example, in the suave urbanity of his long lyrical melodies and in the joyous rhythmic energy with which both works heard here abound. Persichetti used our 20th- century musical vocabulary to make us listen in a fresh way. Precise attacks, motor rhythms, changing meters, syncopations, and dissonance are all typical 20th-century devices. But they sound so fresh when they are not employed as the means to an end. Dissonance is heard as an emotionally powerful statement instead of an irritant. Motor rhythms and changing meters take on an unbridled gaiety (in spite of the technical difficulties they present to the pianists). It is this emotional connection with and need to communicate the essence of the American psyche that makes Persichetti sound so American.
In his aptly named Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, David Diamond exploits the percussive edge of the piano. Precision of attack is not used for clarity alone, but also to convey the brute power of the instruments, whose "bite" is always felt, even in the most densely scored passages. We are not hearing two pianos as an orchestra but rather the sheer power of the instruments themselves. Diamond forces his pianists to be athletes. This is in itself a very American concept: Our conservatories train for strength; the American-built Steinway is constructed with a much heavier action than its European counterpart. As sonically overwhelming as the Concerto often becomes, Diamond never fails to make an emotional connection with his audience. One comes away from this piece, and really from every piece on this album, with a feeling of the pure exhilaration of making music - a heartfelt joy that composers of the New World seem especially adept at communicating.
Georgia & Louise Mangos