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Intercontinental Piano Duo


Shuann Chai and Yuan Sheng (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

For last Sunday’s recital on the Frederick Historical Piano Concerts series in Ashburnham, two pianists who have appeared previously individually joined forces for a program of solo and duo works by the Schumanns and Brahms. Chinese-American Shuann Chai, who is now based in Amsterdam, was making her sixth appearance and Chinese pianist Yuan Sheng, professor at the Beijing Conservatory, but who earned his B.M. and M.M. degrees at the Manhattan School of Music in NYC, his third, but this was their first duet outing.

The instrument that they chose from the Frederick Collection was the 1868 Streicher, with the somewhat diabolical serial number 6668. It is parallel strung, with the overspun bass strings on a separate bridge, bass register single strung, the tenor register double, and the remainder triple strung, with a range of seven octaves. The hammers have leather covers, with felt beneath most except the very top notes. It is just over seven feet nine inches long and has a walnut veneer case with a wooden frame with two iron tension bars, but no metal string plate, and only the then-standard two pedals. The firm’s characteristic elaborate nameplate on the fallboard says: “J.B. Streicher / K.K. Hof & Kammer Pianoforte Fabrikant / & Sohn in Wien ” [= Johann Baptist Streicher / Königliche Kaiserliche (Royal Imperial) Court & Home Piano Manufacturer / & Son in Vienna] spread over three lines. For more information about this legendary company, readers may consult the beginning paragraphs of my review  of a concert in which  the Collection’s 1871 instrument was used. It is identical to the one Brahms owned. The instrument has a clear tone, resonant and warm because of the quantity of wood and the lack of metal, mellow and somewhat throaty, that the Fredericks described in the program book as “transparent. ” Although it is definitely a Romantic instrument, shining in lyrical and energetic moments, it is less bright than a modern Steinway and has considerably more color, with notable differences among the registers that remain distinct from each other while yet pleasantly blending.

Chai and Sheng opened and closed their program, composed of works mostly written within a single decade that ended a decade before the instrument was built, with the duet works, Chai handling the upper register and Sheng the lower and the pedals in both cases, and playing from scores, pretty much essential in duet playing. The opener was Robert Schumann’s Bilder aus Osten, op. 66 (1848), often charmingly but inappropriately translated as “Images from the Orient,” but it literally means “Pictures from the East”; and the melodies and rhythms come, in fact, from Central Europe, East of Germany, not from the Far East. It is a set of six varied impromptus.

Sheng followed this, playing from memory, with what the printed program listed as Brahms’s 16 Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann, op. 54 (1861), but I am familiar with the work of this title as op. 9 (1854), written for Clara Schumann after the birth of her eighth child and after Robert was institutionalized, when Brahms was offering her support and companionship, since she was not permitted to visit Robert; Brahms had delivered the variations piecemeal, collecting them afterwards. The theme comes from Robert’s Albumblatt in F-sharp minor from his Bunte Blätter, op. 99 (1836-49).

After offering some interesting commentary about Clara and Robert’s relationship, Clara’s music and her career before and after Robert’s death, and her relationship with Brahms, Chai opened the second half of the program with Clara’s [Seven] Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann, op. 20 (1853), work that she offered to Robert on his 43rd birthday, the year before his breakdown. The theme is the same one that Brahms used in his op. 9, played earlier. These variations stay closer to the theme, which always remains readily recognizable, than do those of the Brahms work, and they allowed a different aspect of the instrument to stand out. The piece also demonstrated that Chai is as good an ambassador for Clara’s works as Clara was for Robert’s. Chai followed this with Robert’s Drei Fantasiestücke, op. 111 (1851), perhaps the most familiar of all the works on the program thus far, and the one with the greatest internal variety, although Chai was very restrained in her body movements and concentrated in her execution, even in places where some pianists tend to become quite demonstrative. She used scores for both works.

The duo concluded with the first five of Brahms’s 21 Hungarian Dances, WoO 1, (1858-69) in their original piano four-hand versions, thus ending a program of generally calm, cerebral works that showed off the instrument’s potential in a more quiet manner — although with a few brilliant moments, with one of more exuberant bravura that demonstrated its power; but the pieces were more harmonious and mellifluous and less brilliant, boisterous, and raucous than they sound on a modern Steinway-like instrument. Playing was impeccable throughout the recital and the partnership was polished. Future visits and collaborations will be most welcome.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College in Northampton.

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