An Evening of Piston Rarities for Piano

United StatesUnited States Piston, Copland: Matthew Graybil and Igor Lovchinsky (pianos), Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz (guest speakers), SubCulture, New York City, 9.1.2014 (BH)

Piston: Improvisation (1945);
Passacaglia (1943);
Sonata for Piano (1926, New York premiere);
Concerto for Two Pianos Soli (1967, New York premiere)
Copland: El Salón Mexico (1936), transcribed for two pianos by Leonard Bernstein (1943)

Perhaps the most astonishing fact about this evening of Walter Piston’s piano music was that two of the major offerings had never been heard in New York. After hearing the 1926 Sonata for Piano, authoritatively played by Igor Lovchinsky, I was figuratively shaking my head, wondering why such an entertaining piece doesn’t show up on recitals more often. Later the reason appeared: it was unpublished until the duo pianists Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz unearthed it, for which we should be grateful.

In the first movement, a rambling, mildly fiendish three-quarter-time rhythm quiets down and becomes more static, before the initial rhythm returns even more demonically. The second movement has a steady tread, gently floating, with Piston’s talent for clear contrapuntal lines evident in every bar. The finale is a lively allegretto reaching a fast, furious conclusion. As he did all evening, Lovchinsky played with focused attention on Piston’s dynamic levels and structural clarity.

Matthew Graybil began the program with Piston’s Improvisation, exercising patience and like his colleague, careful dynamic range control. He was equally impressive in the 1943 Passacaglia, with its relentless stride (perhaps unusually, in 5/8 meter), growing heavier and louder as it progresses.

Stecher and Horowitz—who were on hand for the evening with touching, humorous stories of working with Piston—commissioned the Concerto for Two Pianos Soli. During their heyday, they performed the piece over 500 times all over the world, and it’s not difficult to see why. In three movements, its construction is conservative but leaves a satisfying aftertaste. A unison opening divides into festive, angular harmony, ending quietly. The second movement is slow, solemn, yet still maintaining the composer’s steely elegance. In the finale, a series of entertaining ascending and descending scales tickle the ear, before the work reaches its exuberant conclusion. Graybil and Lovchinsky could not have given this masterwork more loving care.

If the finale, Copland’s El Salón Mexico in Leonard Bernstein’s two-piano arrangement, didn’t quite satisfy, that was not the fault of the two excellent performers. Well-meant as it may be, the adaptation can’t compare to the vivid orchestral original, and on this occasion, it was totally outclassed by Piston’s architectural splendor.

Bruce Hodges