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Paul A. Snook
Fanfare, September 2011

The talented and comely (judging from the booklet cover photo) Taiwanese sisters Beatrice and Christina Long demonstrated considerable enterprise in selecting a couple of rarely performed two-piano concertos (Suesse and McDonald) for this debut recording for the new label Sono Luminus. And, given the limited repertoire for this combination, their additional choice of the roilingly rough-hewn Vaughan Williams makes a kind of sense, although we are still awaiting a first recording of the Piston effort in this genre.

Dana Suesse (1909–87) was a Kansas City prodigy who in her 20s became a prominent member of the “metropolitan” school of composers gathered about, and promoted by, showman-musician Paul Whiteman. After Whiteman’s landmark Aeolian Hall concert that launched Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Whiteman became a mentor to a flock of homegrown composers who had one foot firmly in popular music but aspired to concert hall status, thus instituting our first generation of Third Stream music. More or less at the same time (the early ’30s) that Suesse was publishing such hit songs as You Oughta Be in Pictures and My Silent Love (the latter adapted from an earlier piano piece, Nocturne), she was soloist in the Whiteman premiere of her Concerto in Three Rhythms, which has just been issued on Naxos.

Suesse’s Two-Piano Concerto was labored over during most the 1930s and finally premiered in 1943 by Eugene Goossens with the celebrated two-piano team of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robinson as soloists. This four-movement piece is a serious and well-proportioned work that, as opposed to the earlier concerto, has only a few dim echoes of Suesse’s pop background. The themes are songfully distinctive and appealing, the formal structure clear and traditional, and the harmonic language an auspicious blend of Grieg and salon music without any soupçon of pretense or banality. This is one of those once-obscure scores that was well worth reviving.

Harl McDonald (1899–1955) was a California-born composer who in later years became closely identified with the Philadelphia Orchestra (eventually serving as its manager) during both the Stokowski and Ormandy eras. A good deal of his music was once available on shellac but, except for his utterly disarming suite for harp and chamber orchestra, From Childhood, it has mostly fallen, undeservedly, into oblivion. Most of his work derived from programmatic concepts (even the four symphonies have movements with titles), but this 1936 two-piano concerto was one of his exceptional efforts in absolute form. As such, it is a very engaging work in conventional tripartite form using a type of Yankee-accented sub-Rachmaninoff idiom, with the middle movement an unexpected theme and variations and the finale employing some of McDonald’s favorite “south of the border” elements. Though the original Stokowski-led recording was reissued on Cala as one of “Stokowski Rarities,” a modern recording was overdue and this one more than meets the mark.

Originally conceived in the 1920s as a solo piano concerto, Vaughan Williams’s Two-Piano Concerto was revised by the composer two decades later, in the process doubling its quotient of energy and tumult. This is quite a challenging score for both the soloists and the orchestra and on balance the Longs hold their own against previous recordings by Whittemore and Lowe (RCA vinyl with Golschmann conducting), Markham and Broadway (Menuhin conducting on Virgin Classics), and the unusually emphatic and fast-clipped Vronsky and Babin, with Boult maintaining a furious pace, on EMI. Though as thoroughly professional as this provincial Turkish orchestra sounds, it can hardly be expected to meet the standards set by the Royal and London Philharmonics. Bearing that in mind, this is a still an acceptably faithful account of the music.

For the Suesse and McDonald works, together with a knowledgeable annotation by the unique cabaret pianist and singer Peter Mintun (who back in the 1970s brought Dana Suesse out of retirement to attend a Carnegie Hall concert of her music featuring conductor Frederick Fennell and pianist Cy Coleman!), this is an essential release not likely to be duplicated in the near or far future. Grab it!

Steven J Haller
American Record Guide, July 2011

Concertos for two pianos have changed quite a bit since Mozart and Mendelssohn. Common to all three of these examples is a flair for rhythm and striking orchestral color quite of our time, and even if the only one you recognize is the Vaughan Williams there is much here that compels attention. Dana Suesse was born Nadine Dana Suess in Kansas City, Missouri in 1909, but as a child prodigy destined for fame her mother added an “e” to lend a certain air of sophistication, to make it look French. She was already giving solo recitals by the age of 9 and soon afterward moved to Greenwich Village with her mother, who lost no time soliciting no less than the great Alexander Siloti for advanced tutoring. As a pupil of Liszt and mentor to Rachmaninoff, Siloti knew talent when he heard it, and taught Suesse the classics; but she had already fallen in love with jazz and popular music, and her songs for the Billy Rose Revue and Guy Lombardo’s band made seasoned impresarios sit up and pay attention. Paul Whiteman, who had already made George Gershwin a household name with his Rhapsody in Blue, now looked to Dana Suesse as his next star talent and included her Concerto in Three Rhythms on his November 4, 1932 “Experiment in Modern American Music” concert at Carnegie Hall together with Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, I Got Rhythm and American in Paris and Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite.

The Concerto for Two Pianos was first performed by Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson in December 1943 with the Cincinnati Symphony directed by Eugene Goossens, who also wrote the brief program notes. There are four movements beginning with an Allegro that calls to mind the piano concertos written for the movies like Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto and Bernard Herrmann’s Concerto Macabre. You may also be surprised to hear a vibraphone added to the percussion mix. Suesse makes sure both soloists and orchestra have plenty to keep them busy before a brisk fugue launched by both pianists leads to a grand closing statement. The atmospheric Adagio seems closer to film noir. The toccata-like Scherzo with its insistent snare drum and muted trumpet conjures Ravel’s Concerto in G. The Finale starts out very much like Debussy, but soon we may recognize Gershwin both melodically and in the playful keyboard banter that reminds us the Second Rhapsody started out as movie music too.

Much controversy still revolves around Ralph Vaughan Williams’s decision to rearrange his Piano Concerto of 1931 (with the help of Joseph Cooper) as a vehicle for two pianos, perhaps fearing that the Brobdingnagian orchestral forces bellowing at full blast quite overpowered the poor pianist. (That decision did not sit well with the original soloist, Harriet Cohen.) This concerto in either format sounds strikingly close to the Fourth Symphony written three years later. Even with another two hands to help out, the fragile keyboard shudders before great shards of sound, and even the consoling flute in the Romanza can do little to stem the tide. This music requires pianism of muscular force and brawn, and you simply won’t believe the immense prowess these sisters from Taiwan bring to the table—nor for that matter the remarkable support of these Turkish players. I cannot speak with authority on other recordings mentioned in our British music overview (Jan/Feb 2010); but I can tell you the Long sisters deliver the goods, and if it’s the Vaughan Williams concerto you’re after you won’t be disappointed.

But I jumped at the chance to review this for the concerto by Harl McDonald. A forgotten man today, McDonald was championed both by Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky, and this concerto was fortunate enough to win the approval of Leopold Stokowski, whose 1937 recording with Jeanne Behrend and Alexander Kelberine has been reissued on Cala. He wrote it while serving as Director of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and shortly before becoming General Manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the palpable bond between composer and conductor that began with Stokowski was later reinforced by Ormandy’s recording (for 78s) of his First Symphony, The Santa Fe Trail. Although born near Boulder, Colorado, McDonald grew up in Southern California, primarily San Jacinto, where he recalled “I got an ear-full of Mexican music”; and you may hear that in his concerto. He described it not as a typical back-and-forth of soloist and orchestra, but rather “a work for orchestra with decoration in the solo instruments”; even so it proceeds in broadly romantic fashion much as you might expect—that is, until the finale, a Mexican juarezca launched by 12 measures of the most glorious racket you ever heard by all manner of drums that also break out in force whenever the soloists aren’t looking. Filled out with wonderful jazzy slides by the trumpets, what we have here might be the love child of the Gershwin concerto and Morton Gould’s Latin-American Symphonettewhy have we had to wait so long for a new recording? The Long sisters take care to get the tricky rhythms just right, and they do a fantastic job; but oh, how I wish they had simply thrown caution to the winds and let it rip like Stoky’s team! Even the drums—as good as they are—don’t thunder like the Philadelphia if you play the Cala loud enough to wake the dead—as you should. But this is a really good modern recording, and I only hope it will give concert planners out there some ideas.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, May 2011

A most unusual and welcome disc. The repertory is a much-needed contribution to the piano concerto literature. The Vaughan Williams is infrequently heard and the other two must be receiving their first recordings here and fully deserve them. Then we come to the two-piano team, two sisters from Taiwan who will be unknown to most, and the very obscure Turkish Orchestra. Unfortunately while the sisters are superb performers, the orchestra does an often haphazard job backing them up, or this CD would definitely get five stars.

Vaughan Williams created his concerto for a single piano in the Twenties. In 1946 he revised it for the duo-piano team of Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, and that’s when they premiered the work. It is more dissonant and daring than most Vaughan Williams works and probably the least English-sounding of any of his opera. The last of its three movements is a massive fugue with plenty of clashes of the two pianos and orchestra. The work has been recorded by Broadway and Markham with Yehudi Menuhin conducting, and is likely to be preferred over this CD, but the two other concertos are unique and fascinating to hear.

Harl McDonald was a music professor and also manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which made it easier to get his music performed and recorded. I recall having had 78s of works by both McDonald and Suesse. The orchestra premiered his two-piano concerto in 1936. McDonald was called by a music critic “As American as Pike’s Peak.” He tried to express musically his inner impressions of things from which he gets emotional reactions. His concerto mixes the usual dialog between the pianos and the orchestra with a tonal fabric in which the pianos become part of the orchestra. The work’s finale is a Juarezca—a Mexican dance similar to those the composer heard during his youth in California.

Dana Suesse was well-known in the 1930s—primarily due to her association with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. In fact there is a photo of her with Whiteman and George Gershwin which lends credence to some critics referring to her as the female Gershwin. She had studied composition with Rubin Goldmark, who also taught Gershwin. She was interested in popular music and jazz and the public loved the full rich chords and syncopation in her works. Her two-piano concerto is in four movements, with a striking Scherzo third movement. It has some fine melodies and occasionally sounds like film score music.

Sonics are first rate and the detailed note booklet is interesting reading about all three composers and the works heard.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group