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EXPLORING MUSIC: At the Piano in the Good 0l' USA

The MHS Review 389 Vol. 11 No.11 1987

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Frank Cooper


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Whoever you are, and whatever your musical background, chances are that you haven't heard much, if any, of the music on this recording. Chances are also that, if you do hear it, you will like it!

American piano music in the 20th century is nothing to be afraid of. As if to prove the point, Bennett Lerner has cleverly selected for our entertain­ment about an hour's worth of in­teresting pieces by some of our coun­try's important "name" composers. The longest is a 19-minute tough-and­-tense suite, the shortest a 54-second tidbit of emotional embitterment. These, and everything in between, are the sorts of pieces most often overlooked by performers-which is why audiences never get to hear them. Kudos to Mr. Lerner!

For my ears, the gems here are such tiny sparkling things as Paul Bowles' Cross-Country (with its sassy, popular

style), Aaron Copland's "Jazzy" (from the Roaring Twenties), and Samuel Barber's Love Song (written at the age of 14). Clocked at about a minute apiece, each is a charming, disarming miniature too small to program in most recitals but perfect for home listening via recording.

Roy Harris' American Ballads does for our folk tunes what Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Brit­ten did for England's: removes them from their countryfied origins and dresses them up in attractive, modern garb, thus putting them in line for the recital hall. Nothing fussy, mind you, just a half-dozen good tunes set simp­ly and effectively for the idiom of the piano, and done within ten short minutes--enjoyable.

Special pleasure can also be taken in the six concise minutes of Bowles' Sonatina. Its songful slow movement is framed by perky, rhythm-prone outer movements-Americana with a slight twist of gallicism. Marc Blitzs­t ein' s loose-hipped "Three-Four Dance" makes a fun-filled finale to the set of three excerpts from his ballet, The Guests. Its bumps and grinds may make your prudish friends blush.

The hardest nut to crack is William Schuman's Voyage, a rather fierce suite of five Jagged, dissonant, and un­compromising pieces. Together with Copland's brief mood study, "Embit­tered," it challenges and, perhaps, ex­pands our notion of music as the ex­perience of truth, even if not always pleasant. The contrast such works provides with the array of other, less challenging pieces is something to appreciate.

There is an opportunity here to obey the exhortation of Charles Ives' father, who once roared to some recalcitrant listeners, "Why don't you stand up and use your ears like a man!" There is, after all, a vein of toughness running through everything American, from our pioneering days up to the present. We should welcome it as a trait in our national character and applaud it in our composers.

The piano is clearly and realistical­ly recorded. Lerner knows this music, projects its messages, and honors its composers. Together with its predecessor, American Plano Music, Volume 1 (MHC 9513K; MHS 7513H), the recording documents a segment of our nation's ever-growing musical history too rarely found on cassettes or discs. Recommended!

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