20th Century Masterpieces for 2 pianos and orchestra – Pierce and Jonas Piano Duo/David Amos / Carlos Piantini – MSR Classics 

Seven 20th century neo-classical concertos for two pianos and orchestra

20th Century Masterpieces for 2 pianos and orchestra: Works by LOPATNIKOFF; TANSMAN; MALPIERO; BEREZOVSKY; POULENC; STARER; CRESTON [complete list of compositions below] – Pierce and Jonas Piano Duo / Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra & National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio and Television/David Amos – Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra/Carlos Piantini, MSR Classics MS 1651, 62:53, 63:37, ****:

These works for two pianos and orchestra represent a generous survey the neo-classical two-piano-and orchestra revival of the mid-twentieth century. The emergence of duo piano teams (Vronsky & Babin, Gold & Fizale, Whittemore & Lowe, Luboshutz & Nemenoff and others) created a demand for contemporary works they could perform. Beginning in the 1980’s, Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas have continued reviving these neglected works and added new ones. These reissued recordings were made in the 1990’s and this is the first of two Volumes. When completed, there will be recordings of 13 two-piano concertos. The extensive essay by composer, author and critic Eric Salzman, who passed away last year, is a valuable addition to these recordings and the history of the genre these works represent.

The neo-classical movement started in the 1920’s and 1930’s and is linked to Igor Stravinsky. It is one of three major musical movements in the 20th century, the other two being twelve-tone music and minimalism. As Mr. Salzman points out, the major influence on neo-classicism is the baroque concerto grosso, which consists of a string orchestra, sometimes including winds, from which soloists emerged. Keyboards were also part of the small ensemble. There were typically three movements, an initial fast, motoric movement, an arioso slow movement and a fast, sometimes dance infused finale.

Nikolai Lopatnikoff (1903-76) was born in Russia and pursued a double career as a composer and civil engineer until coming to America in 1939. He taught composition at Carnegie-Mellon University and became a virtual composer in residence for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. His Concerto for Two Pianos (1949-50) is rhythmically dramatic with a sylvan Andante, which the composer describes as “of slightly Russian suggestion.” Alexander Tansman (1897-1986), Polish by birth, established himself as a composer and pianist. He settled in California during World War II, befriended Stravinsky (worked on his biography) and composed film music. The Suite for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1928) is stylistically a concerto grosso, with the piano first among equals. Highlights include a touching and lyrical Lento pesante, a manically rapid Perpetuum Mobile and delightful Variations. Tansman has a real melodical gift.

Gian Francesco Malpiero (1882-1973) discovered early Italian music and was the first to edit Monteverdi’s work. When he heard the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, his music became more dissonant.  His Dialoghi V11 for 2 Pianos and Orchestra (1956) is episodic, hiding its lyricism. There’s a playfulness in Malpiero’s music that’s endearing, energetic and magical. Nicolai Berezovsky (1900-1953) was a violinist and conductor in Russia until 1920 when he emigrated to Vienna and then New York where he taught at the Julliard School. He was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. Fantasie for 2 Pianos and Orchestra (1931) exhibits a dramatic and virtuosic Russian flavor within the concerto grosso style. It’s an exciting 11 minute work and a recording first.

Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for 2 Pianos and Orchestra (1932) was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac, an American heiress—of the Singer sewing machine fortune, who married into French nobility. She was a major patron, commissioning works from Faure, Stravinsky and Milhaud. Poulenc was born into a family of wealthy pharmaceutical manufacturers and a member of the famous band of young French composers named “Les Six.” The work is pure fun: jazzy, witty, free spirited and enthusiastic. There are elements of silent film music, the French music hall, and Balinese gamelan, all integrated into Poulenc’s own concerto grosso style. The lovely Larghetto uses a theme from Mozart’s Coronation Concerto—“Mozart with wrong notes.”

Born in Vienna in 1924, Robert Starer moved to the United States in 1937, studying with Aaron Copland at Julliard and Tanglewood. After serving in the Royal Air Force in World War II, he taught at Julliard from 1949 to 1974. His compositions have received many honors and awards and have included operas, ballets, chamber music and orchestral works. The Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra is complex, dramatic, and energetic with jazzy rhythms and a touch of middle-eastern music. The slow movement is reserved, melodic and thoughtful. The scherzo is marked Lightheartedly and is a slow dance of tongue-in-cheek frivolity. The finale begins slowly and builds to a convincing conclusion. The variety of moods and tempos are appealing and there is enough melodic and dramatic interest to return to this intriguing concerto.

Paul Creston (1906-85) quit high school at age 15 to support his family. He was a self-taught composer who practiced on a $10 piano and smoked coffee grounds late into the night while studying famous scores. He started composing in 1932 and by 1941 his Symphony No. 1 won the New York Critics Circle award. Toscanini, Ormandy and Stokowski played his tonal and strongly rhythmic music. He also wrote many scores for radio and television shows. The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1951) is characterized by a strong sense of dance, starting with a motoric, almost frenzied first movement. The more relaxed and dulcet Andante pastorale brings melodic relief, only to be followed by a tarantella which becomes a virtuosic and exciting romp to the finish.

Almost all of these two piano concertos are energetic, dramatic, rhythmically interesting, with slow movements filled with neo-classical melodies. Pierce and Jonas perform these works with imagination and virtuosity. The 1990’s recordings are good for that decade, only lacking in the clarity and bloom of the best recent albums. Recommended for those explorers of unfamiliar music worth discovering.

20th Century Masterpieces for 2 pianos and orchestra:
LOPATNIKOFF: Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra
TANSMAN: Suite for 2 Pianos and Orchestra
MALPIERO: Dialoghi VII for 2 Pianos and Orchestra
BEREZOVSKY: Fantasie for 2 Pianos and Orchestra
POULENC: Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra
STARER: Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra
CRESTON: Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra

—Robert Moon


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