Frank Zappa wasn't the only composer whose life was changed by a brief encounter with Edgar Varèse; Morton Feldman ran into Varèse one day on the street and, in the course of a quick exchange, Varèse offered advice that stayed with Feldman until the end of his days. Nevertheless, one wouldn't naturally come upon the notion to program the two together as the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo has on this Wergo disc devoted to multiple piano works of both composers, but as an album and a purely musical experience this is a stunning success. The Varèse work is his two pianos, eight-hand reduction of his notorious orchestra work Amèriques as scored out in 1921; Varèse undertook an extensive revamping of this score in 1927, but never completed the work. In her realization of Amèriques, Helena Bugallo of the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo has simply sought to put the score back into the finished state at which it arrived in 1921 before Varèse's additional tinkering took place, sort of like resetting a computer back to its "last known good configuration." Feldman's Piece for Four Pianos (1957) is a classic that has been recorded many times going back to near the time it was composed; Five Pianos (1972) is relatively new to the recorded repertoire, with only two previous recordings known, though with these open form works no two recordings are quite alike, or even similar.
Of course, the Feldman works are quiet and dreamy; particularly Five Pianos, with its mesmerizing humming and subtle hints of slowly rising, low-register celesta, whereas the Varèse is a throbbing, violent early modern work that smacks of the big city and -- in its far more familiar orchestral version -- some might liken its last section to a monster movie music. Whereas the stone edifices of skyscrapers and blaring winds might dominate the orchestral Amèriques, this eight-hand piano incarnation takes the skyscrapers down to bare steel, exposing the frame of the music, which was something the ever-inscrutable Varèse did not typically allow us to see. Stravinsky -- in his typically snarky fashion -- once noted that "the shadow of Le sacre fell on" Varèse's Arcana; the comment applies more so to Amèriques than to Arcana. This shadow is wiped away in the piano version, as is another that fell across the orchestral version, that of Richard Strauss. Unlike the four-hand Le sacre, where you are essentially hearing the familiar music with a few subtle changes, and in a different garb, whole long sections of the piano version of Amèriques sound completely unfamiliar even to those who know the work well, the effect is so transformative. However, on its own terms it's quite impressive in terms of sheer piano density; the thundering, high level of dissonance; and almost Nancarrow-like multiplicity of polyrhythmic voices. One wonders at times had Varèse tried to go forward with a performance in 1921 if he would have been able to find players who could handle it.
Of course, Bugallo and Williams have enough sense not to try and pull all of this off on their own, and bring additional pianists Amy Briggs and Benjamin Engeli in on most of the program, with Stefan Wirth joining in on Five Pianos. Amèriques is interleaved in between the two Feldman works, which may be this album's most sensational feature; that the white hot rollicking rambunctiousness of Varèse is contained between the calm, detached, and smooth surfaces of Feldman is a great asset. They were among the most conspicuously romantic figures of their respective generations within the discipline of modernism, and Bugallo-Williams' Wergo effort manages to capture the stylistic continuum that links Feldman and Varèse, something not readily apparent in the music even as the historical link is well accounted for.