Starkland Reissues Ellen Burmeister’s Long Out-of-Print Persichetti Collection
This one’s been out of print for a long time, so it’s nice to finally see a digital release for this collection – the only one composer Vincent Persichetti ever approved for his Tenth and Eleventh Piano Sonatas. Originally released on vinyl in 1985, Starkland has brought it back with impressive attention to dynamics, because that’s how Ellen Burmeister – now Professor Emerita of Music at the University of Wisconsin/Madison – played these pieces. Persichetti, longtime Chairman of the Composition Department at Juilliard, was an American original, staking out a defiantly shapeshifting terrain that embodied elements of serialism, the twelve-tone system and the Romantic era yet belonged to none of them – or all of them, at various points throughout his repertoire. That he would give Burmeister his imprimatur, when his longstanding favorite interpreter was his own wife, speaks volumes.
The best-known piece here is the Tenth Piano Sonata, from 1958, Rachmaninovian glory through a glass jaggedly. It’s essentially variations on a theme, navigating the tricky grey area between atonality and the high Romantic, sometimes gingerly, sometimes assaultively. Burmeister varies her attack deftly, through its serpentine dynamic shifts: nimble cadenzas, graceful legato lines, percussive clusters and the occasional rapidfire cascade. As an approximation of a majestic conclusion looms, Burmeister holds the tempo steady and lets the leaps and bound speaks for themselves.
Persichetti’s Serenade No. 7 has the feel of a series of etudes: the sprightly Walk, the gentle Waltz, a trio of lively scherzos and a masterfully hushed, pianissimo take of the concluding miniature nocturne. Burmeister calls the Eleventh Piano Sonata “bristly… severe intensity balanced by timid questioning,” which is spot-on. It opens with a jarring, seemingly abstract hopscotch of forte chords and then dwindles to the first of several contrastingly spacious, low-register mimimalist interludes. Here Burmeister pulls out the heavy artillery for the harsh pseudo-prelude of the third movement, and when this recurs out of the preceding, playful bustle in the fourth. And again on the surprise ending that leaps with a staccato flourish out of more low bass ambience. It’s not easy imbuing music this rigorous and acidic with genuine warmth, yet that’s what Burmeister achieved here, no small accomplishment.
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