Auditioning these marvelous inscriptions by Leonard Pennario (b. 1924), I am reminded of our several meetings in Atlanta, including a hamburger treat from Pennario to me at Emory University. Pennario had the good fortune to play the Rachmaninov C Minor Concerto with Mitropoulos, who promptly advised Pennario to take up the Saint-Saens G Minor Concerto. “I started to laugh, making up some excuse or other,” quipped Leonard. “The look on Dimitri’s face told me I’d made a mistake; it turns out that Mitropoulos had studied with Saint-Saens and respected his music. I realized that this was no joking matter.” Pennario recounted in the course of our conversation having played the piano for a huge party Danny Kaye threw in Hollywood. “Bogart came in drunk, a bit coarse. But I will say that later he apologized, and I thought to myself that was what a real man would do.”
For years EMI/Capitol Records stereotyped Pennario’s playing into the bravura and showpiece repertory. Only recently have I discovered that a recording exists (unissued) of his performing a Mozart concerto, for which his touch and tone would be perfect. It was Sony who cast him as a chamber music collaborator with Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky; and again, there exists an unissued inscription of the Brahms C Major Trio, Op. 87. In spite of a glut of recordings Pennario made of Grieg, Gershwin, and Rachmaninov, it was his work on Louis Moreau Gottschalk that catapulted his name as a refreshed keyboard voice on records. Leonard told me his favorite recording was the Rachmaninov D Minor Concerto with Walter Susskind. The present set includes recordings made 1943 (the private record of The Kerry Dancers) to 1958 (Chopin Sonata). Significant is Pennario’s unearthing of the solo arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse (1954), a truly blazing moment of bravura and dynamic finesse, as are his records of Gottschalk’s The Banjo and The Union, recorded later than this set’s parameters. A silken tone, breathed phrasing, and a penchant for arriving at what Rachmaninov called “the point” of a musical piece are Pennario’s strong suits. Just to have an integral set (1950) of Prokofiev’s twenty Visions Fugitives (it was their debut as a complete unit) is a must for collectors.
I think the secret of this large compendium of Leonard’s recorded legacy is to take it in small doses. Having the Liszt Sonata follow on the heels of the Schumann C Major Fantasy spoils their respective proportions. Pennario is an elegant Lisztian; I would like to have him on the Mephisto Waltz and Polkas, the three Liebestraume. The Prelude, Chorale, et Fugue of Franck (1957) proves a durable, intelligent, stylish performance. The Bartok Sonata (1956) is one of several kinetic performances of repertory that in the mid-1950s did not receive much attention, barring the few inscriptions from Geza Anda and Gyorgy Sandor. The Moussorgsky Pictures (1953) enjoys a grand line from start to finish, an intelligently graded series of arches to the Great Gate of Kiev, and never less than committed emotionally. The Funeral March Sonata caught me at the eponymous Funeral March and its tender, nostalgic middle section. The Schumann Fantasy may be too streamlined for some tastes; maybe we are jaded into believing the piece needs all kinds of staggering stops and starts.
The 1956 performance of the A Minor Sonata by Miklos Rozsa (a composer championed by no less an artist than Heifetz) is a delicious find: it begins in the manner of a Bach toccata; and we miss Bach from Leonard’s awesome repertory. Pennario draws forth a liquid tone out of an oft percussive Steinway in this polyphonic, moody music. The first movement concludes with some echt Hungarian razzle-dazzle. The second movement, Andante con calore, displays some exotic, Debussy-inspired harmonies, and we recall that Rosza composed his Piano Concerto (1986) especially for Leonard Pennario. The musical tiger emerges for the Allegro gusto e vigoroso, another toccata demanding rapid shifts of touch, dynamics and knotty, jazzy fingering. The set of Chopin Waltzes (1952) stands as fine testimony to a clean, polished salon rendition of the standard cycle of fourteen, played in the manner of Lipatti, who organized them according to his emotional lights. When Leonard’s “Minute” Waltz came over my speakers, my daughter (aged eleven) ran in, saying that it was played the way she loved her favorite waltz played.
Crystalline, icy perfection for Ravel’s Miroirs (1952), the Noctuelles fluttering in the cold, clear ether of outer space. Stasis and twittering for Oiseaux Tristes, a haunted collection of birds they are. Watteau for Une Barque sur l’Ocean, and we can hear the waves slap against the prow of the boat. Wizardly trills and arpeggiated runs. Collectors measure performances of Alborado del Gracioso by the standard Lipatti set; and while those by Julius Katchen and Leon Fleisher are indeed powerful, Pennario adds considerable Spanish panache and dexterous magic to the blaze of colors. The Melrose Studio acoustic is somewhat dry to my taste. The Vallee des Cloches rivals Richter’s famous inscription for clarity, nuance, and sustained pulsation. The same sustained, blue-green sheet of ice water saturates Ondine, the first of the Gaspard suite. Infinite degrees of touch for Le Gibet, followed by the fiercely punishing agogical frenzies of Scarbo carried off in masterfully. To conclude the Ravel group, we have Pennario’s inimitable contribution to keyboard lore, the solo version of La Valse, the performance of which became Pennario’s trump card. During the playing of Debussy’s Reverie (1957), my daughter asked if his piano were a harp. Leonard’s own Lisztian piece, Midnight on the Cliffs (1942), depicts the Atlantic crashing against the jagged shores of Newport, Rhode Island. Hollywood chords deserve Hollywood images, so the piece was scored into the 1956 film Julie, with Doris Day. Variations on The Kerry Dancers, 1942, was inscribed at Pennario’s Buffalo, New York home. The Brahms influence is clear, and the piece bids a fond, albeit temporary, farewell to the honest virtuoso who is never less than a gentleman.
[My favorite Pennario recording is the two-track Capitol open reel tape I have of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto…Ed.]
— Gary Lemco