The Pridonoff Duo–Virtuosity Squared = LISZT: Concerto Pathetique; KNEHANS: Cascade; GERSHWIN: Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess” – Elisabeth & Eugene Pridonoff, pianos – Ablaze Records

by | Dec 21, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

The Pridonoff Duo—Virtuosity Squared = LISZT: Concerto Pathetique; KNEHANS: Cascade; GERSHWIN (arr. Grainger): Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess” – Elisabeth and Eugene Pridonoff, pianos – Ablaze Records ar-00009, 73:00 [www.ablaze] ****:
The Pridonoff Duo came into existence in 1982, making its debut in Cincinnati. Each of the artists has an impressive pedagogy that includes Adele Marcus, Hans Heinz, Rudolf Serkin, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Their eclectic program warrants our attention at least for their impassioned inscription of Liszt’s unique Concerto Pathetique (1865), in many ways a structural and thematic study for his later B Minor Sonata and its compression of four-movements-in-one that he adopted from Schubert.
The Liszt Concerto Pathetique typifies the Liszt hybrid style, with its capacity for ecstasies high and low. Liszt had conceived a Grosses Concert-Solo that he might have evolved into a full-fledged concerto for piano and orchestra. Then, he began to sketch a symphonic treatment of the materials, and often the score takes on orchestral indications, like quasi arpa or quasi tympani. Liszt settled for Schumann’s formula of concerto sans orchestra, but his writing achieves a monumentality quite beyond Schumann. Often the writing moves into the realm of Hungarian Rhapsody or one of Liszt’s own symphonic poems, rhetorical and martially electrifying. In its more serene moments, the writing resembles one of his Sonnets after Petrarch, with the primo keyboard exploiting bravura figurations over the glistening bass lines of the second keyboard. The Lisztian love of water figurations invests itself into the writing exactly as the demonic impulse no less asserts itself, an alchemical mix of no small power. The two Steinways create a colossal impact, the last chord of which might hurl your audio equipment through the roof.
Douglas Knehans (b. 1957) is an American/Australian composer who serves in various pedagogical capacities in Cincinnati, Singapore, and Poland. The 2010 Cascade suite of three pieces: “Drift Echo, Wave,” and “Torrent,” is his first work for two pianos, commissioned by the Pridonoffs. In a fast-slow-fast structure, the work fulfills a kind of concerto function, the outer movements exploiting the percussive, explosive sonority of two pianos, sometimes in jazzy riffs and pounding chords and runs. The demanding syncopes of the first movement create quite a challenge to the performers, who negotiate their virtuosic assignments with resonant aplomb. The middle movement slows down the harmonic-rhythm and basks in the interplay of sound and light that spaces between notes generate, much in the manner of Debussy or Ravel’s Le Gibet. The improvisatory riffs occasionally coalesce into a fruitful melody of some merit. The last pages of “Waves” combines repeated block chords with a feeling of plainchant. “Torrent” clearly announces its purpose, to saturate us with Lisztian arpeggios and heraldic devices. The bell-tone capacity of two keyboards makes this section akin to those “cloches” in Ravel. The Pridonoffs’ recording marks the world premier recording of Cascades.
Elisabeth Pridonoff’s musical association with baritone Todd Duncan, who premiered the role of Porgy in Gershwin’s folk opera, motivated her desire to record the two-piano arrangement of the opera by Australian virtuoso Percy Grainger. The Catfish Row “overture” begins the suite as a kind of fate-motif from Bizet’s Carmen. After a tumultuous and moody opening, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” brightens the Charleston sky. The infectious “Summertime” rings in the air, marcato, and in etched figures. “There’s a Boat Leavin’ Soon for New York” clamors the promise of rescue from the slums and poverty of Charleston dock life. The pathetic turn occurs at “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” rife with ornaments and syncopated metrics. A fugato leads us to the Technicolor fact that “I Got Plenty O’Nothin’.”  The suite concludes with a pulsating version of “I’m On My Way,”  Porgy’s declaration of the never-ending quest for love and fulfillment.
—Gary Lemco

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