Four hands might not be enough.
The piano duo Quattro Mani—Susan Grace and Steven Beck—have contributed the latest recording to the ongoing Bridge Records set of the composer Stefan Wolpe’s challenging music. It’s the eighth disk in the comprehensive Bridge project, which began in the 1990s.
“It was really hard in the beginning with Wolpe’s pieces,” Grace says. “I played some of the songs—that was my first experience with him—and I thought, ‘Who is this person, and how am I going to figure out this music?’ But as you work on them more, you hear more things.”
The Quattro Mani disk includes music that Wolpe (1902–72) composed the ’30s and ’40s, with the centerpiece being the two-movement ballet suite “The Man from Midian.” Wolpe wrote that score in 1942, to accompany the modern modern dance choreography of Eugene Loring. The ballet creates a narrative around the life of Moses, and was first performed in April 1942 at the National Theater in New York.
“We just did a house concert of ‘The Man from Midian,’ and the piece is really compelling when you play it live,” Grace says. “It’s full of these short movements that really drive the narrative.”
Quattro Mani was formed in 1989, originally including Grace and Alice Rybak. Steven Beck became the other two hands of Quattro Mani in 2013. Grace is based in Colorado, where she is artist-in-residence and lecturer at Colorado College. Beck, noted contemporary pianist, lives in New York City.
This is Quattro Mani’s first contribution to the Wolpe series. Although Grace has contributed individually to the project, the pianist David Holzman has recorded most of the composer’s solo piano work. Quattro Mani has two additional compilations on Bridge, featuring an impressive list of contemporary composers like Lansky, Ruders, Tower, Sørensen, Sierra, Crumb, Rzewski and Machover.
Stefan Wolpe wrote in nearly every possible genre, and for every possible level of expertise—including beginners. Stylistically, he constantly re-evaluated his work, as well as absorbing the musical possibilities of his various locales. So compositions from different decades, and from Wolpe’s homes in Berlin, Palestine, Black Mountain and New York, gave birth to music that in some way reflects all those times and locations.
The breadth of the Bridge series, which began in the early ’90s, highlights those many differences. Vocal music, Yiddish folk songs, blues, tangos and children’s songs mix in organically with 12-tone row studies. Pure music in a serial style blends with popular music that promoted causes associated with Wolpe’s socialist leanings.
This disk does include two studies on basic rows, a Presto and a Passacaglia, which Wolpe wrote in the mid-’30s. Both are examples of the composer’s fascination with intervals. For Wolpe intervals had “singular identity, and a history,” Beck says. “They’re more accessible, from a certain sound world—Busoni or Reger.” The expansive “March and Variations,” also from the 1930s, completes the disk.
“You really have to work at it, to make some of these pieces clear,” Grace says. “There was a lot of energy when we recorded it. Everything is so thick, you just want to settle into the middle of it.”
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com