Quattro Mani excel with Stefan Wolpe two-piano music

The personal nature of this music makes this volume of Stefan Wolpe one of the most important, I think. Stefan Wolpe met pianist Irma Schoenberg in 1927. Through 1942, when they separated, they had a professional and personal relationship. Schoenberg enabled Wolpe to flee Nazi Germany and rescue his music besides.

She inspired the March and Variations for Two Pianos. Wolpe’s two-piano score for the ballet “The Man from Midian” was written for Schoenberg and Wolpe to perform together.

The first three of his Studies on Basic Rows were dedicated to Schoenberg (Irma, that is). And of course, the two-piano version of the first two studies was for them to perform together.

The Quattro Mani doesn’t quite duplicate the chemistry between Wolpe and Schoenberg must have brought to their performances. But they come very close. To my ears, it sounds as if Wolpe built conversations into these scores. Steven Beck and Susan Grace seem to pick up on that, tossing motifs back and forth with easy familiarity.

The March with Variations developed along with the relationship. Wolpe wrote the march in 1932 but added variations over the course of the year — a year that involved an escape to Czechoslovakia, a tour of Russia, study with Webern, and immigration to British-controlled Palestine. As the work progresses, each variation seems to become more complex, more atonal, though never quite achieving the Webern ideal.

“The Man from Midian” is a ballet with an incredibly complex history.  The Ballet Theatre commissioned Darius Milhaud to write a score for a ballet about Moses. Milhaud titled his work Moïse, and later arranged it as a concert suite, Opus Americanum no. 2. In the meantime, the choreographer Euguene Loring left the company and mounted his own production of the ballet, this time using Stefan Wolpe.

The score was originally for two pianos and is set in two movements. Each movement features several short vignettes (eight in the first, eighteen in the second). Wolpe uses motifs to denote the major characters, modifying them as the drama demands. Sometimes the music is incredibly dense and atonal, other times it’s quite simple and consonant.

As I listened, my respect for Quattro Mani grew. This is quite difficult music and required a great deal of precision. Beck and Grace not only delivered but did so with elan.

They also deliver fine performances of the Studies on Basic Rows. This is atonal music by the numbers and can sound lifeless and academic. Beck and Grace play these studies with just enough expression to elevate the scores from exercises to music.

Stefan Wolpe: Volume 8, Music for Two Pianos
Quattro Mani
Bridge Records 9516

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