I wish I’d been there… Sousa
January 23, 2007
Music Review | ‘Pianos/Pianists’
All Around the Town, Piano Recitals With a Difference
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
The most obvious way to freshen a classical music program is through novel programming. The pianist Wu Han and the cellist David Finckel have proved adept at this so far as music directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The title they devised for the societyâ€™s program on Sunday evening at Alice Tully Hall might have been trite â€” â€œPianos/Pianists: A Celebration of the Keyboardâ€ â€” but the concept was imaginative.
As Ms. Wu explained in the program notes, pianists tend to work in isolation from one another. When not mining the vast solo repertory, they are playing the piano part in a chamber work or accompanying instrumentalists and singers. But there is a sizable body of works for four-hand piano and for two pianos. Sundayâ€™s program presented teams of pianists in varied examples of this repertory, climaxing in a clattering, propulsive and riveting account of Stravinskyâ€™s shocking â€œRite of Springâ€ in its four-hand piano incarnation, played by Gilbert Kalish and Ms. Wu.
Though this approach has merit, the resourceful Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein, 27, now an American citizen living outside Boston, showed on Sunday afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art how to turn the tried-and-true piano recital into something startlingly fresh simply by choosing an adventurous program. Among other offerings, he gave compelling performances of Schumannâ€™s impetuous â€œHumoresque,â€ three of Ligetiâ€™s astonishing Ã©tudes, a wildly inventive Busoni piece (â€œCarmen Fantasyâ€) and a finger-twisting transcription of the crazed march movement from Tchaikovskyâ€™s â€œPathÃ©tiqueâ€ Symphony.
Mr. Gerstein began traditionally, with an articulate account of Haydnâ€™s exuberant Sonata in D (Hob. XVI:37), followed by a searching performance of the Schumann. The repertory exploits started after intermission, with Mr. Gersteinâ€™s vibrant performances of three Schubert songs in transcriptions by Liszt.
The piano part of Schubertâ€™s â€œErlkÃ¶nigâ€ is hard enough: the right hand plays repeated octaves and chords so continuously that it is amazing the pianistâ€™s arm does not freeze up in a muscle spasm. But if you think the original is difficult, you should hear Lisztâ€™s fancy piano transcription, which includes the vocal line too. Mr. Gerstein played with aplomb, then gave commanding and colorful performances of the Ligeti Ã©tudes.
For whatever reason, Busoni, the visionary pianist and composer who died in 1924, also labeled his â€œCarmen Fantasyâ€ Sonatina No. 6. This wonderfully strange piece is a fantastical exploration of themes from Bizetâ€™s opera. The technical challenges, though, were nothing in comparison with those of Samuel Feinbergâ€™s arrangement of the Allegro molto vivace from Tchaikovskyâ€™s Sixth Symphony, which is not just a gimmick but a serious attempt to reimagine this frenetic orchestral movement as a piano piece. Mr. Gerstein played it with valiant determination and to great effect. I managed to stay for his encore, the tender â€œMÃ©lodieâ€ by Rachmaninoff, and still make it across town in time for the Chamber Music Society program.
Four-hand works, like the charming Andante and Five Variations in G by Mozart, which the fine pianists Gilles Vonsattel and AndrÃ©-Michel Schub played exquisitely to open the program, were conceived as pieces for the home, primarily for the enjoyment of the players. This applies as well to the pair of four-hand works that followed: Mendelssohnâ€™s elaborate Andante and Variations in B flat (played by Inon Barnatan and Anne-Marie McDermott) and FaurÃ©â€™s â€œDolly Suiteâ€ (Ms. Wu and Charles Wadsworth). Still, though the site was way too big, each performance proved rewarding to hear.
On the other hand, Lutoslawskiâ€™s 1941 â€œVariations on a Theme of Paganini for Two Pianos,â€ while lasting just six minutes, is a full-throttled and ingenious concert work, played here brilliantly by the dueling pianists Mr. Schub and Ms. McDermott.
The four-hand piano version of â€œThe Rite of Springâ€ was created to enable Nijinsky, who choreographed the ballet, to rehearse his dancers in preparation for the infamous 1913 Paris premiere. Still, the four-hand â€œRiteâ€ packs a wallop as a concert piece. Without the alluring orchestral clothing, Stravinskyâ€™s harmonies, cluster chords, pummeling riffs and meter-smashing rhythms sound even more radical. Beyond the challenge of playing all the notes, Ms. Wu and Mr. Kalish had the extra task of keeping their hands and arms out of each otherâ€™s way, which is not easy, since the piece involves much overlapping between the players.
All in all it was quite a day for the piano in New York. And the courageous Mr. Gerstein set a high bar for creative programming.