Last August the ZOFO duet pianists (Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann) gave a preview recital in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco to preview a CD they were in the process of recording at Skywalker Studios in Marin County for the Sono Luminus label. Most of the time of the recital was taken by one of the two major works to be featured on the CD: the four-hand version of the score for the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (the rite of spring), which Igor Stravinsky completed before the orchestral score and which he performed with Claude Debussy to introduce the music to choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. The concert also included a four-hand arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s overture to his musical, Candide, prepared from the orchestral score by Charlie Harmon in 1993, and “Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’été” (to invoke Pan, god of the summer wind), the first of Debussy’s six Épigraphes Antiques.
The CD was released this past Tuesday under the title Mind Meld: Works for One Piano, Four Hands. Everything performed at the preview recital is included, as well as all six of the Épigraphes Antiques and Harold Shapero’s 1941 four-hand sonata. There are any number of reasons to recommend this new release, beginning with the sad truth that, even including Mind Meld, there are fewer than ten CDs listed on Amazon.com that include any compositions by Shapero. ZOFO performed his sonata at their very first public concert in October of 2009, and they have treated it with loving kindness ever since then. Shapero had his own take on cultivating an “American sound” based on his experiences at Harvard (where Leonard Bernstein was a fellow student) and subsequent studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. If the music is not as adventurous as the more cerebral efforts of later followers of Anton Webern, it maintains an upbeat attitude with many refreshingly innovative gestures.
What is most important about the performers is their gift for bringing transparency to everything they play. Thus, one can actually hear more of Stravinsky’s music in his four-hand version, simply because one is not up against the walls of sound built by his (highly effective, mind you) approach to instrumentation. Even Bernstein’s overture benefits from this treatment, particularly in its rapid passages. The virtue of the Debussy, on the other hand, resides in the capture of those sonorities that the composer had conceived from the beginning; and the result is thoroughly magical.
My only regret comes from my having seen so many ZOFO performances. Just as important as their sonorous transparency is the intricate sense of choreography that they bring to their performances. They never seem to perform anything that involves dividing the keyboard into a right half and left half. Instead, the concert-goer gets to experience an elegant interleaving of arms, all directed towards bringing the utmost clarity to the score they are reading. Nevertheless, there is so much to engage the serious listener on these audio tracks that the loss of the visual channel is not a critical one.