Piano Music By Vincent Persichetti:
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Early grace.The postwar era shook up American music. The heroic first generation of American composers seemed either settled or passé, depending on your point of view, and younger composers began to receive increased attention. Many of them sunk into obscurity: John Vincent, Ben Weber, William Bergsma, Robert Ward, among them. Others continue to be played, as much as any Modern American music other than Copland or Gershwin gets played. Vincent Persichetti currently gets performed.
A musical prodigy born in 1915, Persichetti absorbed nearly all the major musical languages of the Modernist era: Bartók, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and so on. This facility made him a sought-after teacher. However, it also blunted his stylistic individuality. Unlike those by, say, Copland or Barber, an Persichetti unfamiliar work is harder to recognize, although he becomes his most distinct in his fast music. On the other hand, paradoxically, he does have idiosyncratic habits. If I can't identify Persichetti in a "drop the needle" situation, once I know it's Persichetti, I say to myself something like, "Oh, yeah." The works on this program all appeared before the composer hit 40.
The designation "sonatina" usually refers to a light piece, less "weighty" than a real sonata, if you will. Persichetti's indicates brevity only. They are chock-full of interest, especially the masterful imitative counterpoint. The piano writing usually lies well beyond the fingers of the beginning piano student (how well I remember those trifles by Kuhlau and Clementi and Diabelli and Pleyel and ...) and requires at least an intermediate player. Musically, they demand a mature player. The first is Hindemith in all but authorship, and it seems to me a piece that the earlier master would have been happy to own to. Sonatina #2 is one bipartite movement. It begins with a Hindemithian slow song. About midway, it changes to a presto which owes nothing to Hindemith or anybody else. To me, this is all Persichetti. Toward the end, Persichetti combines the two themes without breaking a sweat -- really neat. The Sonatina #3 begins with a neo-Romantic serenade, a bit echo-y of Barber (something like the "Homage to John Field," although that came later) and haunting on its own. An allegro -- again, not really indebted to anything but a general neoclassicism -- follows and concludes the work.
The fourth sonatina provides a charming change of pace. All three movements are more or less moderato in tempo, with simplified piano writing. A beginning student could well play these. It breathes the atmosphere of Schumann's Album for the Young and with echoes of Hindemith, speaks in an individual way. The same can be said for Sonatinas #5-6.
The Little Piano Book, for intermediate pianists, collects fourteen short Albumblätter, most of them dashing in at around a minute. They show Persichetti as a genius miniaturist. The invention never flags through these brevities. The emotions span an impressive range. The music alternates the sprightly with the lyrical, but never the same type of sprightly or lyrical. Hindemith lurks in the background of some of them, but not all, and in the quieter moments one hears something individual, but hard to define. An impressive composition.
"Throughout Persichetti's catalogue, you will find series of works, notably Parables, Psalms, and Serenades. They show such variety, both in mood and instrumentation, that I have no idea why Persichetti called one a Parable and not a Serenade or Psalm. I suspect, however, that the genres stood out distinctly in his own mind. The Serenade #2 comes from Persichetti's student days, when he was 14. Three movements -- "Tune," "Strum," and "Pluck" -- reveal an ambitious artist, prodigiously talented, intent on shocking the bourgeoisie. None of them last longer than a minute. Serenade #7, written in his thirties, shows a greater maturity. For me, they portray the world of childhood, enfantines, with titles like "Play," "Sing," "Chase," and "Sleep." They share an open innocence and directness of expression.
Persichetti had a "literary" streak in his music. His three volumes of Poems are mood pieces based on single lines of poetry from such authors as T. S. Eliot (who also provided the text for the composer's The Hollow Men), Louis Untermeyer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, Amy Lowell, H. D., and Robert Fitzgerald. The problem with such a conception is that often people disagree on whether the music reflects the mood. Persichetti does do musical "imitations" of poetic imagery -- a drumming of sorts in "Unroll the flicker's rousing drum," for example -- but I find no special affinity between words and music, and the music, despite its careful craft and imaginative and idiomatic piano writing, doesn't compel me. It's more neo-Romantic than other Persichetti, even the pieces on the disc, as if Persichetti tried briefly to become Barber. Your mileage may vary. However, the consistency of language, remarkable for a composer in his mid-twenties, impresses me, especially since you can see the short step between this and his maturity.
Parades is for beginners, a bit like the easier pieces in Bartók's Microcosmos. The three movements -- "March," "Canter," "Pomp" -- display Persichetti's rhythmic inventiveness.
Variations for an Album varies a Hindemithian theme four times. Beautifully constructed, both in each variation and as a whole, it requires a mature musical mind, despite its relative ease for the fingers, to make its full effect.
And speaking of mature musical minds, I have to praise pianist Myron Silberstein. I first heard him in Gershwin, and he knocked my socks off with his musicianship and his care for and deep dive into those compositions, too often just tossed off. Here, he has a particularly hard challenge to make something out of mostly very simple works. Like the composer himself, he has no complexity to hide behind. Still, he manages to turn most of these works into poetry. His lyricism, his warmth never cloys. The emotions come across as genuine. Persichetti can strike a listener as brittle, but Silberstein makes sure that doesn't happen. He's my kind of pianist: simultaneously singing and architectural and in full service to the composer.