Word came over the weekend of the Friday passing, in La Jolla, California, at age 83, of Leonard Pennario, a Buffalo-born, Los Angeles-based powerhouse of classical pianism who recorded more than 60 albums in a career that stretched from the Great Depression to the Clinton Era. Photogenic and equipped with technique to burn, Pennario was one of the most popular American classical recording artists in the age of LP albums. Pennario's recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony was the most commercially successful LP released by his recording concern, Capitol Classics, moving more than half a million units.
Pennario was an ideal pianist for the modern era; a player who was at his best in the muscular, strongly rhythmic music of composers like MiklÃ³s RÃ³zsa, Maurice Ravel, Bela BartÃ³k, Sergei Prokofiev, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk. However, it was the nature of the record market in his time that there was seldom a call for such material; in the 1950s, even Ravel was considered a specialized taste. Yet Pennario managed to record far more of such music than perhaps Capitol would have preferred. Apart from a brief excursion to RCA Victor in the 1960s, Pennario remained on the roster at Capitol until parent company EMI closed the L.A.-based classical division in the 1980s. Although he toured internationally in 1952, his concert career was mostly played close to home, concentrated in the 48 states and Hawaii.
As Pennario's great popularity began to decline in the 1960s, one might expect the critics to weigh in with continued appreciation of his work, but they did not. The reason most often cited was that in the bread and butter of classical piano literature -â€“ Schumann and Chopin, admittedly the material piano fanciers most often seem to want to hear â€“- what Pennario offered was more like Melba toast than German chocolate cake. It was technically secure, but not parceled out in gooey rubato and replete with a great many obvious personal touches. That was not the area, however, of Pennario's strength as pianist -â€“ he could deliver music pretty much as it appeared on the printed page, with no fuss and no muss. Technical considerations of playing didn't matter to Pennario, and composers were quick to notice his ability; MiklÃ³s RÃ³zsa wrote both a piano concerto and a sonata for Pennario. Those who criticize Pennario for being too cold are missing his uncanny sense of timing, tempo, and his extremely subtle sense of expression -â€“ values that were premium in the movie-making community in which he lived and sometimes worked. Overall, Pennario has not been well served on CD reissues, though MSR Classics broke the mold through its 2006 release of a three-disc set, Leonard Pennario: The Early Years, which culls the Capitol Classics catalogue for some of his outstanding monophonic recordings.
Pennario's last hurrah in the mass media occurred in 1987, when he was featured on a nationally televised broadcast from Lincoln Center given in observance of the 50th anniversary of the death of George Gershwin, although he continued to concertize in Los Angeles through 1993. His later years were marked with a struggle with Parkinson's disease, yet as long as he was able, Pennario pursued his other great passion: contract bridge. His all-night bridge playing parties were reputed as the stuff of legend, and Pennario was named a Life Master in 1980, even though he remained an amateur.
Pennario with Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra - Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit - Scarbo
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition - The Hut on Fowl's Legs
BartÃ³k: Piano Sonata
RÃ³sza: Piano Sonata
Pennario: Midnight on the Cliffs
An impressive gallery of many of Pennario's LP covers may be found here.