• Retro Americana

    Pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico released a collection of interesting French Piano music earlier on the Navona label and now turns her attention to a survey of American music on Retro America (Navona 6361) available as a digital download and on streaming platforms.  

    The music on this release covers a quite wide gamut of music moving from early avant-garde to jazz.  It is interesting to see Henry Cowell's (1897-1965) brief Six Ings (c. 1922) kick off this release.  It is an early example of the composer's experiments expanding sound.  In this work, Cowell takes a basic interval, the third, but somehow creates a quality that is more atonal.  The brevity of each movement (the whole piece takes about 9 minutes) is also in keeping with the short piano works of Webern and Schoenberg, and yet Cowell's rhythmic ideas are still well-rooted in American syncopations.  Next up is a movement from Frederick Rzewski's (1938-2021) North American Ballads in its solo version, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (1979) is another example of American avant-garde piano writing.  Rzewski liked to take American popular forms (blues, jazz, folk song, etc.) and then merge them into often dense and powerful textures with tone clusters being a common technique as well.  His work often shifts from simplicity to complexity and that can be experienced in this piece.  George Gershwin is the iconic American composer whose plethora of great songwriting made his wish to be respected as a serious concert composer always elusive.  Quilico shifts gears to present a suite of eight of the composer's greatest tunes rather than his Preludes.  Of course, one intriguing connection is that Gershwin took some private composition lessons with Cowell.  Thus by placing these brief little performances here on the album we have a rather nice overall balance to the opening piece.  It also provides even greater context for what the other composer's were familiar with and how that influence was integrated into their music.  The performances also seem to be informed by the composer's piano rolls and performance practice/style.

    Composer Bill Westcott (b. 1948-), like William Bolcolm, has spent his life exploring jazz and blues forms of the early 20th Century.  His little suite features four movements that explore ragtime, blues and boogie woogie.  Four pieces by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) move us closer to some of the later developments in music that merges American jazz and concert music.  The great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956) is honored with performances of two jazz standards ("I'll Never Be the Same"; and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore").

    The program of Retro Americana is a well-thought out one with music that all has one finger in the pie of early 20th-century musical forms.  From the serious to the more popular and accessible styles, Quilico's skill both as an interpreter of lyrical romantic writing, technical virtuosity, and a fine sense of jazz syncopation styles and performance make for a real treat for fans of American music.

  • Piano Duos of Gershwin and Bernstein


    The Gershwin and Bernstein Connection
    Eliane Rodrigues and Neena Smits, piano.
    Carlo Willems and Koen Wilmaers, percussion.
    Navona Records 6230
    Total Time:  76:05
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Music by George Gershwin frames the popular West Side Story Dances of Leonard Bernstein in this new release of familiar music in new clothing.  Bernstein, of course, often performed and conducted Gershwin’s music often recording it numerous times as conductor and pianist.  Both composers melded together popular music forms and jazz rhythms in concert music.

    Gershwin’s classic Rhapsody in Blue (1924), with its famous clarinet glissando capped Paul Whiteman’s concert of modern music which was an attempt to bring jazz into the more serious artistic world.  The success of the piece would inspire Gershwin to continue exploring concert music.  It is this most famous work which opens the present album.  While there are hundreds of recordings of the piece, this arrangement for percussion and pianos, created by the ensemble here, intends to create some new life into a familiar work.  Here, the jazzier side of the music is excellently balanced by the classical virtuosity of this mother/daughter duo.  On one hand, their performances on their own are enough to carry this music quite well.  The percussion aspects add some nice color and extra rhythmic punctuation.  Much of it follows quite closely to the Grofe orchestration and when the percussion departs from this it is more in line with jazz performance covers of the work.  Whether one agrees with some of the choices or not, the result is a solid exploration of this classic 20th-Century work.

    The two-piano format for Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story has appeared occasionally in two-piano arrangements (most famously one with the Labeque Sisters in an arrangement by Irwin Kostal).  This one is based on John Musto’s piano arrangement with additional percussion arranged here by Peter Sadlo.  Here we approach more of a jazz-like exploration of this music which is wholly appropriate.  As the pianos led the way in the opening work, here percussion get a chance to explore a wide range of instruments melodically and rhythmically.  Something which also can be said of the way the piano is treated as well.  A few surprises along the way recall some of the many ways this music has appealed to jazz artists giving this performance a slight crossover sensibility.

    Perhaps Gershwin’s Concerto for Piano and Trumpet is one of the composer’s capstone concert works.  Advocates over the latter 20th Century have helped insure its place in the repertoire.  Rodrigues and Smeets have adapted their performance here from the original score.  Allowing for the solo part to lay well against the orchestral reduction.  The percussion, arranged by Thomas Schindl, draw from that as well with some additional material to add flair and rhythmic drive.  This is especially true in the central movement where mallet percussion comes to the foreground more.  But, the stage belongs here to both Rodrigues and Smeets.

    Both pianists prove to be superb interpreters of this music with a great match of interpretation and style that carries through these works.  The careful dramatic flair added for the pieces also makes them engaging performances that draw out as much nuance as precision.  The pianos are set up across the sound spectrum for a sense of who is on each “side” of the imaging here with the percussion across the “back” of the sound picture.  That helps provide a proper balance ambience to the performances captured here.  The virtuosic playing is on display throughout with the percussion having a bit more opportunity to shine in the Bernstein.  The result is a recording that brings together accessible music in performances that capture the spirit of these familiar works.