Written by Radu A. Lelutiu
Friday, 06 April 2012

Roughly 30 years ago, pianists Elisabeth and Eugene Pridonoff decided to parlay a successful life partnership into one that is almost as meaningful—a piano duo. Since its founding in 1982, the Pridonoff Duo has enjoyed an active and successful career in the United States and abroad. When they are not performing, the Pridonoffs teach at the University of Cincinnati College's Conservatory of Music. For consideration here is what I believe to be the ensemble's first commercial recording. Putting aside its unintentionally humorous title ( Virtuosity Squared ), this is an attractive recording that features technically adroit and musically satisfying performances.

Published relatively late in Liszt's career, the Concerto Pathétique is a rewrite of an earlier piece for solo piano, the so-called Grosses Concert-Solo . Like much of Liszt's music of similar vintage, the Concerto Pathétique is a grandiose score that makes enormous demands on the performers, which are compounded by the inherent difficulty of performing a two-piano work. The Pridonoffs navigate this treacherous work with relative ease, and deliver a finely chiseled performance that does equal justice to the bombastic and poetic elements of Liszt's music. It is true that, for sheer technical diablerie, the Pridonoffs's account does not match Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire's live 1998 performance (originally issued by EMI and now once again available via ArkivMusic's ArkivCD program). On the other hand, the Pridonoffs are better coordinated and their more noble take on the piece has its own considerable virtues.

The second piece, by Australian-American composer and University of Cincinnati professor Douglas Knehans, is a premiere recording. Written specifically for the Pridonoffs, Cascade is a substantial, three-movement work that reflects the composer's preoccupation with how "sounds as waves move about the air as we hear them." Cascade draws on various sonorities offered by the piano while at the same time showcasing the Pridonoffs's impressive technical abilities. It is an effective piece, whose percussive, incisive outer movements (titled "Drift Echo" and "Torrent") bookend a hauntingly beautiful slow movement ("Wave").

The piece that closes the Pridonoffs's recital is Percy Grainger's Fantasy on Gershwin's Porgy and Bess . A great admirer of Gershwin, Grainger arranged nine of the opera's most memorable songs ("My Man's Gone Now," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Clara, Don't You Be Down-hearted," "Strawberry Call," "Summertime," "Oh, I Can't Sit Down," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "I Got Plenty o'Nuttin," and "Oh, Lawd, I'm On My Way") into an operatic transcription of sorts, whose opening and closing numbers mirror those of the opera. The result is approximately 20 minutes' worth of pianistic fun, as the Pridonoffs's recording shows. While there have been other accomplished recordings of Grainger's fantasy, including those of Katia and Marielle Labèque (on EMI) and Gabriela Montero and Alexander Gurning (also on EMI), the Pridonoffs more than hold their own against the competition.

The quality of the recorded sound is excellent. Radu A. Lelutiu

Last Updated ( Friday, 06 April 2012 )



The Pridonoff Duo—Virtuosity Squared

Highly volatile selections for two pianos, brought off with elasticity and explosive élan by the Pridonoff Duo.

The Pridonoff Duo—Virtuosity Squared = LISZT: Concerto Pathetique; KNEHANS: Cascade; GERSHWIN (arr. Grainger): Fantasy on "Porgy and Bess" – Elisabeth and Eugene Pridonoff, pianos – Ablaze Records ar-00009, 73:00 [www.ablaze] ****:

The Pridonoff Duo came into existence in 1982, making its debut in Cincinnati. Each of the artists has an impressive pedagogy that includes Adele Marcus, Hans Heinz, Rudolf Serkin, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Their eclectic program warrants our attention at least for their impassioned inscription of Liszt's unique Concerto Pathetique (1865), in many ways a structural and thematic study for his later B Minor Sonata and its compression of four-movements-in-one that he adopted from Schubert.

The Liszt Concerto Pathetique typifies the Liszt hybrid style, with its capacity for ecstasies high and low. Liszt had conceived a Grosses Concert-Solo that he might have evolved into a full-fledged concerto for piano and orchestra. Then, he began to sketch a symphonic treatment of the materials, and often the score takes on orchestral indications, like quasi arpa or quasi tympani. Liszt settled for Schumann's formula of concerto sans orchestra, but his writing achieves a monumentality quite beyond Schumann. Often the writing moves into the realm of Hungarian Rhapsody or one of Liszt's own symphonic poems, rhetorical and martially electrifying. In its more serene moments, the writing resembles one of his Sonnets after Petrarch, with the primo keyboard exploiting bravura figurations over the glistening bass lines of the second keyboard. The Lisztian love of water figurations invests itself into the writing exactly as the demonic impulse no less asserts itself, an alchemical mix of no small power. The two Steinways create a colossal impact, the last chord of which might hurl your audio equipment through the roof.

Douglas Knehans (b. 1957) is an American/Australian composer who serves in various pedagogical capacities in Cincinnati, Singapore, and Poland. The 2010 Cascade suite of three pieces: "Drift Echo, Wave," and "Torrent," is his first work for two pianos, commissioned by the Pridonoffs. In a fast-slow-fast structure, the work fulfills a kind of concerto function, the outer movements exploiting the percussive, explosive sonority of two pianos, sometimes in jazzy riffs and pounding chords and runs. The demanding syncopes of the first movement create quite a challenge to the performers, who negotiate their virtuosic assignments with resonant aplomb. The middle movement slows down the harmonic-rhythm and basks in the interplay of sound and light that spaces between notes generate, much in the manner of Debussy or Ravel's Le Gibet. The improvisatory riffs occasionally coalesce into a fruitful melody of some merit. The last pages of "Waves" combines repeated block chords with a feeling of plainchant. "Torrent" clearly announces its purpose, to saturate us with Lisztian arpeggios and heraldic devices. The bell-tone capacity of two keyboards makes this section akin to those "cloches" in Ravel. The Pridonoffs' recording marks the world premier recording of Cascades.

Elisabeth Pridonoff's musical association with baritone Todd Duncan, who premiered the role of Porgy in Gershwin's folk opera, motivated her desire to record the two-piano arrangement of the opera by Australian virtuoso Percy Grainger. The Catfish Row "overture" begins the suite as a kind of fate-motif from Bizet's Carmen. After a tumultuous and moody opening, "It Ain't Necessarily So" brightens the Charleston sky. The infectious "Summertime" rings in the air, marcato, and in etched figures. "There's a Boat Leavin' Soon for New York" clamors the promise of rescue from the slums and poverty of Charleston dock life. The pathetic turn occurs at "Bess, You is My Woman Now," rife with ornaments and syncopated metrics. A fugato leads us to the Technicolor fact that "I Got Plenty O'Nothin'." The suite concludes with a pulsating version of "I'm On My Way," Porgy's declaration of the never-ending quest for love and fulfillment.

—Gary Lemco