American Masterpieces for Piano Duo
>Arias & Barcarolles, its title borrowed from a post-concert presidential faux pas, was Leonard Bernstein’s last major work. ‘I like music with a theme,’ Dwight Eisenhower told a startled Bernstein, ‘not all them arias and barcarolles.’ Which is a sad reflection on the cultural hinterland of the one-time leader of the free world; and Bernstein’s song-cycle is ultimately a sad reflection on the fragility and vulnerability of human relationships and therefore on life itself.
Recorded twice (by Gerard Schwarz and MTT) in its subsequent orchestral garb, this recording of Bernstein’s original two voices/four-hand piano version supersedes the long-unavailable premiere recording on Koch International. Albany’s recorded sound could have done with some warming through though. When your brain works out that the sweetness of Bernstein’s loved-up vocal line in the opening number is symbolically thrown against choppier harmonies underneath, your ears do the necessary adjustment. But I’m not sure Bernstein ever intended his opening accented high-register piano chords to ricochet like bullets off metal.
Never mind, the fantasy soon draws you in. The second song, ‘Love Duet’, might be one of the cleverest things Bernstein ever wrote, as the vocalists, playing characters obviously related to Trouble in Tahiti’s Dinah and Sam, sing about the ups and downs of their ‘funny melodic line’, describing its unsettling harmonic twists and turns – clearly a metaphor for their lives together, a metaphor that quickly becomes explicit as the musical turns personal. And Jennifer Robinson and Bradley Robinson get the balance between operatic pomp and Broadway camp spot-on.
Like the Bernstein, which manages to incorporate 12-tone writing and Officer Krupke burlesque into its whole, Dave Brubeck’s 1968 dance piece Points on Jazz is a stylistic smash-and-grab that holds together through sheer force of personality. A theme that began life as ‘Dziekuye’ on his 1958 album ‘Jazz Impressions of Eurasia’ is waltzed and ragged up and made to evoke Take Five and Blue Rondo à la Turk; I very much admire how Wang and Rodgers invoke the power and distinctive touch of Brubeck’s own piano style. Bracing performances, too, of the Copland and William Bolcom’s set of Latin American vignettes.