Connecting Hands Across One Piano
Connecting Cultures Deborah Moriarty and Zhihua Tang, piano. Blue Griffin 633 Total Time: 74:11 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
The repertoire for 4-hand piano works is most known for its showier moments as two performers on one bench must coordinate to create one unified performance without getting in the way of one another. Such an intimate connection between the performers can create some rather exhilarating moments when both are on the same wavelength of interpretation and style. That is on display in this new release by two Michigan State University faculty: Deborah Moriarty and Zhihua Tang.
Connecting Cultures is an ample selection of standard familiar repertoire pieces alongside lesser-familiar fare. The musical styles explored provide a wide-range of period style and varied cultural inspiration that begins with two fine performances from Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (Op. 46, no. 8; and Op. Op. 72, no. 2) which get things off nicely with a little romantic salon-like bravado. A more poised work follows by Mozart (the Andante & 5 Variations in G, K.501; 1786), one of the earlier pieces for this genre that helped to advance interest in more serious composition of this type.
Some of that classical sensibility is transformed in the two works by Chinese composers. Wang Jianzhong (1933-2016) merges Classical European style with Chinese folk music in his Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon which has Impressionist overtones and flourishes amplified by the pentatonic scale and gorgeous piano gestures. It is a quite beautiful piece that floats by all too quickly. Mountain Harvest, by composer Gong Huahua (b. 1978-) illustrates the further expansion of contemporary technique within the more unusual shifts of Eastern melodic and harmonic style. The piece has a slightly more modern tinge to it. Coupled with these mergings of folk music into European art forms are the two Spanish Dances from de Falla’s La Vida Breve which explore folk musical styles and inflections. Each of these four works are great examples of the integration of the two performer’s interaction and support across the range of the instrument. It is also interesting to hear the way each balances the other and provides dynamic shading that blends well across the pieces here.
The second half of the album turns to rare American music. First up is a welcome reading of Amy Beach’s (1867-1944) work Summer Dreams, Op. 47 (1901). The 6-movement work is set up like a suite with nice contrasting movements that visit dance styles (a gentle waltz, and tarantella) while also focusing on specific techniques in each movement. It is an excellent example of Beach’s own pianism and virtuosity as well as her ability to develop a unique American musical voice that blended other ethnic styles into its own modernist dress. Here we are still more in the grand style of the 19th century. The music of Florence Price (1887-1953) has received a bit of a late Renaissance with many of her pieces finding their way into the concert hall and to recordings. Price was the first African American woman whose work was featured by an American symphony orchestra (the Chicago Symphony) but whose music fell off the radar until many manuscripts were discovered in a home outside Chicago in 2009. A student of Chadwick who encouraged her to incorporate the music of spirituals along with unique rhythms and syncopations connecting with her own background and culture. We are treated to performances to Three Negro Spirituals for two pianos which are nice examples of her harmonic approaches to these mostly familiar tunes (I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray; Lord I Want to Be A Christian; and Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit)
Perhaps to further show the connections spirituals and their unique sound had on other American composers, the album concludes with Henry Levine’s arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue which has its own foot in African American musical inflections. The work itself here is a tour-de-force that provides a great encore of sorts to this full collection of engaging works.
Bookending this program with familiar pieces helps to provide a solid engaging experience of the entire program. The opening works help move us right into the less familiar pieces whose sounds and compositional approaches often have close parallels to what has gone before. The performances have a nice sense of shape and perhaps even a little bit of the joy of collaboration that shines through here. The sound of the release gives the piano a nice full presence and the performances deftly demonstrate care of articulation and attack throughout the selections here. Connecting Cultures is a perfect release to engage listeners with excellent examples of this repertoire in music that is quite accessible and stands well on its own. It is an album that many should return to often and is highly recommended.