in: Reviews

June 21, 2010

Music from Down East: Two Fine Concerts in Eastport

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Eastport, Maine, is the first American city to see the sunrise (Lubec, two miles further east, is incorporated as a town). Its year-round population of about 1,300 swells to 2,000 in summer and (so it is said) to 10,000 on the Fourth of July, when even Maine’s governor and U.S. congresspersons and senators come to march in the afternoon parade. I reported last year from the Eastport Arts Center, now in its third year of new residence in an old Baptist church, where the two-manual Harrison tracker organ still survives (no reeds, but nice strings, well suited to P. P. Bliss and William Bradbury hymns).

Memorial Day weekend brought forth a fine festival of local talent, including composer Gregory Biss, whose ruminative, half-tonal, half-atonal String Quartet No. 2 got a very good performance by the visiting Sorelle Quartet from NEC (Jeffrey Dyrda and Ethan Wood, violins, Valentina Shohdy, viola, and Kacy Clopton, cello; despite the name, the group contains no sisters). Saturday night featured an authentic artists’ cabaret, with an exhibition of local painters, and some home-grown music. Gregory Biss played his own piano rag called Lupin and also accompanied baritone David Orrell, who sang Satie’s “La Diva de l’Empire,” a ragtime song, in English translation. Your correspondent, sporting a top-hat, made his professional debut as a solo singer in Schoenberg’s “Der genügsame Liebhaber” (1901, and entirely tonal), also in translation, as “The Contented Suitor.” Most of those who heard this didn’t realize that Schoenberg had it in him, but it was sidesplitting.

The climax, on Sunday, was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on two pianos, played by Gregory Biss and Roberto Pace; both of these fine pianists regularly teach at Summerkeys in Lubec. The Arts Center’s theater doesn’t easily seat more than about 100, but it was full. After an intermission, they played the whole thing again, about 33 minutes. What is most remarkable about hearing this familiar masterpiece on two pianos is how much of the orchestral texture is left out in favor of a strongly rhythmic and harmonic core; this results in a special vitality, not to say textural crudity, that reinforces one’s understanding of the brilliant original. Robert Craft has mentioned that Stravinsky worked on the four-hand score at the same time as he prepared the full orchestral score that goes up to 34 staves per page. This accounts for some of the strange differences between the two scores that I have remarked elsewhere in these pages  here.

On Friday, 18 June, the Arts Center, taking advantage of the two pianos still on stage, was host to an outstanding concert by Dana Muller and Gary Steigerwalt, a married duo-piano team that has been playing professionally for 25 years and more. Steigerwalt is a professor of music at Mount Holyoke College and his wife has taught there also, as well as privately, while simultaneously earning a law degree (by the time this appears she will most likely have been newly sworn in as a member of the Massachusetts Bar at the State House on Beacon Hill). Their program could hardly have been more beautifully chosen or more flawlessly executed. It began with Debussy’s En blanc et noir (1915), a suite of three pieces not often heard but unquestionably one of his greatest works. The first piece, which begins with clattering anti-parallel C major harmony, is one of Debussy’s late reconsiderations of sonata form; the second, a scary war piece that depicts the Kaiser’s army with Ein’ feste Burg in distorted harmony (might it have been this that inspired Stravinsky’s comparably mangled chorale in l’Histoire du soldat of two years later?), but allows the French at least a partial triumph, marked “joyeux.” Stravinsky, himself the dedicatee of the third piece, remarked in later years how Debussy’s remarkable pianism “directed the thought of the composer,” as indeed it did; one of the striking things about En blanc et noir is how the two instruments seldom dialogue with each other but most often merge into a single enormous super-piano that isn’t even orchestral.

Only seldom does one hear Schumann’s Andante and Variations, op. 46, a work whose original version (for two pianos, two cellos, and horn) is rarely heard indeed. In this shorter version, for two pianos alone, Schumann’s self-quotation of Frauenliebe und-Leben is left out, but the amiability remains. Of Schumann’s other works in variation form, the “Abegg” Variations, op. 1, are an extreme rarity, and the often-heard Symphonic Studies in the Form of Variations, op. 13, are wonderfully pianistic but mostly stray far and wide from the theme; his recently-discovered set of variations on the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, published by Henle, are still a curiosity. These op. 46 Variations, from 1843, are especially noteworthy for their rich and complex harmony, which nevertheless keeps the original B-flat major well in hearing range even in the minore variation which allows more tonal freedom.

But one can say exactly the same thing about the Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Witold Lutoslawski, which followed on the program: the thematic basis is always perceptible. These are of surpassing pianistic brilliance, often with gritty harmony that Stravinsky might have cringed at (though Bartók would surely have loved it). Gary Steigerwalt mentioned that the Variations date from 1941 during the German occupation of Poland, when Lutoslawski and his fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik often played two pianos in cabaret-like surroundings. If Paganini might have been flattered by the success of his own 24th Caprice, Liszt and Brahms, transported to 1941, might have chuckled at the barely-concealed reminiscences of some of their own textures on the same theme — and even Rachmaninoff, whose immortal Rhapsody is probably the best-known collection of variations on Paganini’s immortal melody.

After the intermission we heard three pieces for piano four hands by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, pieces that were entirely new to me but that reassured me once again about the strength of her gifts and even more for her accomplishment. These beautiful pieces were perfectly proportioned and built with elegant melodic lines of unfailing strength. They formed fine company for Felix Mendelssohn’s Andante and Allegro assai vivace that followed. The Andante, we learned, is a recently-rediscovered introduction to the Allegro that has been known ever since its first publication in the 19th century. The piece as a whole is a somewhat sprawling sonata form with a certain pianistic kinship to the very familiar Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for solo piano, and much of the same infectious pianistic brilliance, a good workout for able four-hand enthusiasts.

Ravel’s La valse (1919) in the composer’s own two-piano transcription concluded the program. Like the orchestral original, this version has some problems of textural thickness that are hard to pin down, textures that are like an opposite pole to the outstanding delicacy — even fragility — of the Valses nobles et sentimentales of 1911. It’s a question of drama, really. La valse is a narrative form, a harsh portrait of overwrought and declining Viennese civilization, and it succeeds as well in the transcription as in the original. The Muller-Steigerwalt team played it with perfectly controlled abandon, as a fitting wrap-up to a scintillating evening.

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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