in: Reviews

August 27, 2012

Two-Pianists’ Odd “French Connection” Choices

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The program offered by pianists Frederic Chiu and Andrew Russo at Maverick Concerts on Sunday afternoon, August 26th, seemed a curious one. Maverick is celebrating anniversaries of Debussy and Ravel this summer, so it was appropriate to have both composers on the concert. Gershwin’s An American in Paris has obvious French connections, and Philip Glass studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

But the overall selection was odd. Glass’s work is the only one intended for performance by two pianos. Gershwin’s two-piano An American in Paris is obviously a preliminary version. And the works of Debussy and Ravel are better known, and better, in their orchestral scoring. Both composers wrote original works for piano four hands or two pianos: Debussy’s En blanc et noir (two pianos), 6 Épigraphes antiques” and Petite Suite (four hands), and Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (four hands).

Ravel’s after-the-fact arrangement of two of Debussy’s Nocturnes (he left out the one with the chorus) is ingeniously done, and perhaps worth including on this program as an example of the younger composer’s tribute to his elder. There were some imprecise moments in the opening “Nuages” (clouds), which I was inclined to forgive, since two-piano playing is one of the most difficult of all ensembles. “Fêtes” (festivals) was generally deft and bright, but had some over-emphatic moments. I don’t know why Debussy arranged his famous Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune for two pianos, but despite the duo’s colorful playing the piano version is a pale reflection of the orchestral original.

An American in Paris works pretty well in its two-piano arrangement. Chiu and Russo did well with the snappy rhythms, but I think the piece has a lot more humor than came out in this performance.

The opening of Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos took me by surprise, seeming to promise some real musical content. The same thing happened at the beginning of the final movement. My hopes were soon dashed in both cases by a retreat into Glass’s typical monotonous manipulation of scales and broken chords. In the opening of the third movement, I counted 26 repetitions of a naked accompaniment figure before anything else happened. Much of the audience stood and cheered at the conclusion of this set, leaving me utterly baffled. I really haven’t a clue as to what people like about this music.

Having been coarsened thoroughly by playing Glass, Chiu and Russo then tore into Ravel’s La valse with little nuance and a great deal of ugly banging. This was one of the most unappealing performances I’ve heard in more than three decades of attending Maverick concerts. At its conclusion, I fled for the exit, my ears ringing, leaving an encore behind.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.
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