With the release of Stravinsky: Music for Four Hands, Arbiter re-introduces to the catalog some essential recordings of pianists Paul Jacobs and Ursula Oppens in the four-hand music of Stravinsky that will be familiar to many from their earlier incarnation on vinyl LPs issued by Nonesuch in the 1970s and early '80s. During this period, Paul Jacobs was considered one of the most exciting, young new music pianists in New York, but by 1983, he was gone, one of the first victims of AIDS in the arts. Prior to these recordings, hardly anyone had heard Stravinsky's multi-hand piano music apart from the four-hand version of Le Sacre du printemps and the Easy Pieces; even the four-hand concerto and sonata belonged to a dark corner of Stravinsky's output, hardly performed or recorded at all. As Stravinsky created four-hand versions of practically every major work he undertook, this was a particularly sorry omission from the repertoire that Jacobs and Oppens addressed with an impressive amount of success that was well received at the time. However, the transition from vinyl to digital was a tough bridge to cross for Nonesuch, and with Jacobs perishing in the middle of it, a lot of unfinished business was left to dangle, among them these multi-hand Stravinsky recordings with Oppens.
Not only does Arbiter deliver the goods on this important recorded literature, but adds a significant addendum in the form of two Jacobs recitals from the 1970s -- in excellent sound -- that were preserved by Nonesuch head Teresa Sterne. In the second of these, composer Aaron Copland joins Jacobs on-stage for a final run through of Danzon Cubano, a work he had last recorded with Leo Smit in the mid-'40s. Obviously, the playing of Aaron Copland at about the age of 80 isn't going to be at a level of contention with what he was able to produce at his peak, but it was probably Copland's last public appearance at the keyboard and, as such, is a fascinating document. Jacobs is also heard in a scintillating 1972 reading of Stravinsky's Four Etudes, Op. 7, from an appearance at Brooklyn College, and in readings of Schoenberg and Debussy that differ considerably from his studio outings in the same works. Most interestingly, Jacobs is heard in contemporary music that he did not record -- William Bolcom's Ghost Rags and Down by the Riverside from Frederic Rzewski's North American Ballads. The recital material is punctuated with Jacobs' own incisive and entertaining commentary, which underscores what was lost with his passing.
This is not only a fitting tribute to Jacobs, but also to the Nonesuch label of Teresa Sterne's era; even some of Jacobs' spoken comments are addressed to Nonesuch specifically. Whereas in the current context -- and in far more straightened circumstances -- the Nonesuch label continues to do an admirable job in promoting the cause of popular contemporary composers, mostly minimalists, there is no way it can compete with its own 1970s era legacy, which to a large extent fostered creativity among composers and interpreters alike. Perhaps it is ironic that Stravinsky: Music for Four Hands should appear on Arbiter, rather than Nonesuch itself, but Allan Evans and his dedicated team are perhaps better equipped to do so, given the wealth of rare photographs included and the excellent notes, mostly cribbed from Jacobs' own liners.