Split Second Piano Ensemble

Junctions

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Mexico's Urtext label has issued a series of recordings that, though often frustrating in some respects, are notable for their bold and appealing presentations of often unfamiliar contemporary repertoire. Junctions, by Mexican-born and Manhattan School of Music-trained Split Second Piano Ensemble, is among the label's best releases thus far. Split Second, despite its name, is merely a piano duo, consisting of Roberto Hidalgo and Marc Peloquin. The program, merging North American and Latin American influences, is thoroughly crowd-pleasing but never lightweight. There isn't a real centerpiece, but perhaps the highlight is Frederic Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, originally written for a single piano but perhaps more effective in this two-piano version by the composer himself. The work is rooted in the blues idiom, but uses the technical, formal, and harmonic resources of concert music to amplify the content of the original form. The music opens with pounding of cycles of figuration that evoke the heat and pressure of the inside of a mill in operation. Out of this oppressive atmosphere rise bits and pieces of blues and ragtime syncopation, and finally a full statement of a blues melody, perhaps the one named in the title. Although there is no text or singing, the effect is that of a human voice rising above its background. Hidalgo and Peloquin give this work what may be its definitive reading, cutting loose energetically in the demonic material at the opening and giving the blues a wonderful hard-won quality. They are hardly less effective in the brilliant Hallelujah Junctino of John Adams, here turned into an attention-getting overture, or in the lightly Latinized Recuerdos of William Bolcom, closely related to the composer's ragtime idiom. The Latin pieces included bounce off of the American ones in fascinating ways; they presuppose a linkage to vernacular music that the Americans have to work to re-create. Split Second doesn't give Piazzolla's Le Grand Tango quite its proper rhythmic snap. But the listener who traverses the program as a whole will take a unique hemispheric journey.

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