One aspect of the polymorphously polyrhythmic music of Conlon Nancarrow is its lack of practicality in live performance. Nancarrow didn't have, in his time, access to electronics, and as his interest in hearing multiple levels of rhythmic activity increased he turned to the only medium capable of delivering the goods -- the pneumatic technology of the player piano, driven by the "digital software" of a paper roll punched by hand. About the time his work began to gain attention, Nancarrow started to receive commissions for works from real, flesh-and-blood players. One of them, the late pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, created a number of arrangements of Nancarrow's studies for various live ensembles, including a four-hand version of Study No. 15. Duo pianists Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams have taken Mikhashoff's work as the point of departure, resulting in this disc, Conlon Nancarrow: Studies and Solos.
Ten of Nancarrow's studies are heard combined with six other works written for human players. Three Two-Part Studies, Prelude, Blues, and Sonatina are early works from the 1930s and '40s, and the Three Canons for Ursula and Tango are late works. The obvious benefit that human intervention brings to the table in these pieces is a sense of touch and expression. Nancarrow's modified player pianos were capable of delivering discretion between soft and loud, but there was little they could achieve in terms of any gradations in between. The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo demonstrates that there is a lot to experience in Nancarrow's music outside the realm of its pneumatic context. Wergo's recorded sound is excellent, and Bugallo and Williams make Nancarrow's horrendously difficult rhythmic textures seem both natural and non-mechanical. Particularly impressive is their handling of three movements from the "Boogie Woogie Suite," namely Studies No. 3B in C and D; although the original player piano version is very exciting, Bugallo and Williams make it sound like a fractured duet between Art Tatum and Meade Lux Lewis. (Uncle Dave Lewis)