• 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.



  • New Arrangements for Violin and Guitar


    Wild Dance
    Duo Sonidos
    (William Knuth, violin. Adam Levin, guitar.)
    Naxos Records 8.574045
    Total Time:  51:07
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Duo Sonidos launches a three-disc survey of new arrangements for violin and guitar.  The pieces here are mostly arranged by guitarist Gregg Nestor who may be familiar to film music fans as a soloist and arranger.  He has also released albums of his film music arrangements for guitar.  The collection here features his work for various pieces from across the musical spectrum of 20th-Century music.

    Two familiar selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess open the album and invite us into a blend of jazz and classical style first with “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and then with a brief cover of “Summertime”.  The latter moves us into a rather beautiful piece by Szymanowski, “Dawn” (1925) written with and for violinist Paul Kochanski (1887-1934)—the arrangement here is by Allen Krantz.  It is followed by a work from the same year that also lends the album its title, ”Wild Dance”.  These pieces give us a little window into the blend of aesthetics influencing Symanowski’s style coupled with references to Polish folk music.  The violin takes on the lyrical vocal lines that populate Rodrigo’s Four Sephardic Songs (1965).  The piece is balanced then with a similar approach in Ravel’s Two Hebraic Melodies (1914).  Here one gets a good sense of the more modern style of the former with the chant-like impressions heard in the latter.  Korngold arranged music from his Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Op. 11 (1919) for violin and piano to increase its ability for a wider audience.  The Duo includes the gorgeous intermezzo and the hornpipe.  Two more popular pieces then follow with a transcription of Ponce’s beautiful Estrellita, a common occurrence for guitar recitals, and an arrangement of John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List.  The latter is a rather interesting experience that creates an almost folk-like expression of this music in an equally moving performance.  Lukas Foss’ Three American Pieces (1944) comes from that period when Americana explorations were quite abundant in American concert music and that can certainly be heard in the pieces here along with the composer’s sense of wit and integration of folk melodies.

    The program here flows from moments of lyricism to dance and back again.  Other connections can be heard as well from the exploration of Hebraic and Sephardic melodies to other folk melodies.  In many ways, the album explores these various folkish pieces in a way that provides an accessible window into even the less familiar pieces here.  That is what helps make the release a bit more unique as well.  For a transcription to work, the listener must be convinced that this music falls naturally for the forces here.  Indeed, the emotional interpretations of the lyric lines really help to communicate well with this music.  Knuth has a gorgeous tone here that brings a real warmth here when needed and there are a few moments when a little more technical virtuosity is allowed to shine as well.  The guitar becomes both an integral component for harmonic support as well as having times to add even more subtle shaping.  Selections here allow for a wide range of musical experience and taste, many which may invite exploration of other music as well.  The result is a moving program that bodes well for the next two releases.