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Pianist Meral Guneyman appeared to be slightly nervous when she took the stage recently at the 92nd Street Y's concert "Piano Players: New York Mix." But after a glowing introduction from the show's artistic director Dick Hyman, she launched into a powerful solo version of "The Clothed Woman," one of several Ellington classics she played that evening with strong emotion and arresting dexterity. Later Hyman sat at another piano and they reprised his challenging arrangement of "Solitude," skillfully filling in each other's spaces and ending with a touching flourish.
Guneyman's discovery of some Gershwin tunes arranged by Earl Wild was a driving force behind Playful Virtuosity, a fine collection of duo piano between her and Hyman. With Guneyman's impressive symphonic resume and the classical elements present in Wild's arrangements, it's easy to see why she would embrace them so heartily. Guneyman's undulating arpeggios and cascading symphonic touches enhance such songs as "Embraceable You" and "The Man I Love," the latter of which recalls Rhapsody in Blue. Guneyman's range, however, is not confined to the recital hall. On her tour de force rendition of "I Got Rhythm," she boogie-woogies like the house player at a juke joint. At the Y concert she weaved the Wild and Hyman arrangements of "Rhythm" together brilliantly and played like a maenad, stamping her foot to keep time and giving the ivories a melodic forearm.
Guneyman sets the bar high but Hyman reaches it with his excellent improvisations off his own arrangements. His light-hearted take on "Oh Lady, Be Good" growls with deep block chords and his infectious playing on "Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)" is a harmonic stroll in the park. Hyman's touch is nimble throughout, with varying moods and textures, but his sound is just as joyful.
In the wake of the Gershwin block, though, their tandem playing on Hyman's compositions seems almost anticlimactic. His "Indiana Variations," a laconic trio of tunes, are well executed but seem like a series of compulsory four-handed exercise. The second triad, "Three Raps for Two Pianos," a condemnation of rap via an exploration of its rhythmic possibilities, is an interesting ideathe "Allegro" section has an irresistible energybut it doesn't quite soar.
Guneyman and Hyman play with stunning techniques that never subvert substance and styles that are complementary without clashing. It's this individual and collaborative piano mastery that makes Playful Virtuosity, despite being somewhat top heavy, an excellent disc.
Track Listing: Embraceable You; Fascinating Rhythm; Oh, Lady Be Good; The Man I Love; Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away); Somebody Loves Me; I Got Rhythm; Back Home Again in Indiana; Ready or Not; Escape from the Woojies; Big Finish; Django; Three Raps for Two Pianos: Moderato; Three Raps for Two Pianos: Andante; Three Raps for Two Pianos: Allegro.
Personnel: Meral Guneyman: piano; Dick Hyman: piano.