in: Reviews

May 1, 2010

Variations Figured in Levin and Chuang’s Two-Piano Recital

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MIT’s John Harbison, whose Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra received a well-applauded premiere three weeks ago with the Boston Symphony, enjoyed another one on April 30 at Kresge Auditorium when his Diamond Watch: Double Play for two pianos was performed by Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang as the climax to a fine recital for this rarely heard medium. (I still say rarely heard, even though there was another two-piano recital in February at Jordan Hall with another excellent two-piano team, Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss, that should have been reported here.) The two-piano medium is more difficult to control than the one-piano four-hands medium, and the acoustics of the demi-spherical Kresge Auditorium are very capricious, but the husband-and-wife team of Levin-Chuang turned in a brilliant result in a hall that was almost filled.

Stravinsky’s Sonata for two pianos (1944) is of smaller proportions than the Concerto for two pianos soli (1931-35) that Stravinsky played frequently on tour during the 1930s with his son Soulima. The Sonata is simultaneously lyrical and austere, with a spare diatonic tonality much of the time, and elaborate counterpoint at other times. The sonata-form first movement begins with a widely-spaced harmony of dominant seventh in the upper parts and tonic triad in the lower, with a strange but characteristically Stravinskyan sound. The second movement, a theme with four variations very divergent in style, sometimes clattering, sometimes chorale-like, includes a boom-chick ostinato pattern much like what Stravinsky had written 22 years earlier in his short opera Mavra. The third movement, Allegretto, is like a foretaste of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, composed at almost the same time, not to mention Poulenc’s Sonata on this same program — more about that below.

Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest pianists of all time, is slowly being reexamined for the depth of his achievement as a composer, after a century of destructive popularity of his Second Concerto and other works whose originality, in their own time, has always been obscured by the abundance of backward-looking romanticism — he was one of the greatest of Chopin players and was steeped in Tchaikovsky like no other composer. But the Second Suite for two pianos is a good illustration of Rachmaninoff’s strong formal architecture, enriched by a harmonic mastery that any of his contemporaries might have envied (and some certainly did). Like others of his works, the large formal scale in this Suite sometimes sprawls, but the textural thickness and abundance of rapidly-noodling inner parts are a more serious problem. These are more than compensated by the melodic freedom, which soars and sings, and by the well-wrought tonal scheme which adds an element of drama in the fast movements and lyrical expressiveness in the slow. From where I was sitting, it was hard to hear all of these at once, when the muddied middle-register sound seemed to overpower both the upper and lower. I couldn’t fault the players, but I would have been happy to hear this big piece played less forcefully and in a smaller, more intimate hall. Nevertheless, the Presto waltz and the Presto tarantella were sweeping and incisive, and the Andantino romance was poignant.

Before the intermission we heard Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini — the same theme as in variations by Schumann, Liszt, Brahms. and Rachmaninoff in the immortal Rhapsody. Lutoslawski’s witty piece combines the strong A-minor harmony of Paganini’s original with melodic snatches from Liszt’s variations (and probably Rachmaninoff’s too) and splendidly acerbic, crunchy dissonances splattered here and there like snowballs, all over a strongly rhythmic background. I have heard this piece played successfully at slower tempo, but the momentum and zing of this performance were infectious.

Poulenc’s early Sonata for piano four hands (1918) is a delightful example of his rowdy enfant terrible style when Les Six were first discovering each other’s music. The Sonata for two pianos is much more serious; it dates from 1953, when Les Six had all gone their separate and distinctive ways, and Poulenc was already an old master. The first movement is marked by a clangorous and sometimes atonal harmony that gradually stabilizes into a ripe tonal lyricism like the Poulenc of the 1920s and 30s or his later chamber music — a characteristic harmonic language sometimes like neoclassical Stravinsky and Prokofiev together and leavened with Mozart, but with an upper melodic line that is unmistakably Chopin-like in its sweep. It is in the third movement, Andante lirico: lentement, that this kind of music develops into an eloquent and even amorous song; it was good to hear it at reduced dynamic where the texture was full but every note sounded clearly. The fourth movement, Allegro giocoso, reminded this listener of the stark C-minor sound of Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and winds, and one wonders if Poulenc had heard Stravinsky’s later two-piano music as well. (Poulenc did play two pianos in concert from time to time, including his own Concerto in D minor of 1932, one of his best works.)

Diamond Watch: Double Play is a double-punning title, for Harbison’s new piece honoring Professor Peter Diamond of the Department of Economics at MIT. Diamond is a passionate fan of the Boston Red Sox, and the program booklet noted that he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park only 10 days earlier. In brief remarks at the beginning of the concert, the composer mentioned wryly that his new piece was the third example of variation form to be heard on the program. The twelve variations, which were “played without substantial pauses,” included major-minor ninths and tenths in various wide registers (“Low and inside,” “High and outside”), a waltz with wonderfully smeared parallel thirds in both pianos, and an ostinato with a steady jazz beat, with snatches of “Take me out to the ball game” constantly fading in and out. This happy work is a valuable contribution to the not-very-large two-piano literature and one foresees for it a wide popularity, alongside Vittorio Rieti’s Second Avenue Waltzes and Milhaud’s Le bal martiniquais, and even Harbison’s own brief David’s Fascinating Rhythm Method (after Gershwin), which wrapped up the program.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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