in: Reviews

April 21, 2015

Four Hands and Round Tables


Elizabeth Schumann (file photo)

Elizabeth Schumann (file photo)

A recital devoted entirely to music for piano four-hands for an audience seated around tables is a true rara avis, but it is not surprising from the enterprising and eclectic Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston. In one of its “up close” programs, pianists Gloria Chien and Elizabeth Schumann performed at the Goethe-Institut Boston Sunday. Characteristically, the artfully chosen works had something to say to each other. In this regard, the remarks of Chameleon’s Artistic Director, Deborah Boldin supplemented the very good printed notes. Regarding the performers, I can hardly pay a higher compliment than to say that if I closed my eyes at any random moment, it seemed as if one person were playing (albeit with four hands), such was their unanimity of ensemble, phrasing, articulation, even rubato.

We began with Claude Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques, evocations of ancient Greece (from 1894 poems of Pierre Louÿs) written in 1914, near the end of the composer’s creative life. Their style is indeed typical of late Debussy: more sharply etched and less voluptuous [though there was voluptuousness galore in the composer’s version for two harps, two flutes, celesta and narrator also known as Chansons de Bilitis]. Setting this rather more chaste tone, the first epigraph, “To invoke Pan, god of the summer wind”, begins with an innocent single-voice tune: Schumann, on primo, evoked the syrinx (reed flute) associated with Pan. Chien filled in the modal harmonies, and her sensitive pedaling allowed both contrasting and parallel articulation between primo and secondo. While the second, “For a tomb without name”, similarly opens with a single voice, Debussy notates it to avoid any feeling of a meter; only the entrance of the secondo provides any orientation and even then it is an irregular 5/4 meter. Chien vividly evoked the darkness of the tomb with velvety bass sonorities; Schumann contributed some distant birdsong. The third epigraph, “So that the night may be propitious”, was more animated but equally fantastical: in the middle was an accelerando-crescendo (marvelously synchronized) to a climax which immediately dissipated; later another sudden crescendo led to a flute-like cadenza before the conclusion. Perhaps Debussy’s greatest test of the duo’s ensemble came in the fourth epigraph, “For the dancer with finger cymbals”, so full of both momentary and extended rubatos as well as little flurries of treble notes, again evoking the twittering of birds; the artists made it sound fully natural and easy. In the fifth (“For the Egyptian”), the lady of the title was, in diametric opposition to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s fiery Égyptienne, subdued and melancholy though colorful: the characteristic Middle Eastern color of augmented seconds was prominently featured. The final epigraph (“To thank the morning rain”) had a whirring accompaniment of chromatic sixteenth-notes nearly throughout, against which sustained melodies were juxtaposed. Only at the coda did the moto perpetuo peter out, yielding to a nostalgic recollection of the first epigraph’s opening tune, with a plain harmonization this time. After all the preceding harmonic complexities, the delayed final chord, triadic and dryly staccato, got a chuckle from the audience.

Steven Stucky (b. 1949) classifies himself as a composer who stands on the shoulders of his predecessors, and his “Allegretto quasi Andantino” (Schubert Dream) is influenced by music of Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, and Contemporary composers while paying primary tribute to Franz Schubert. The work’s title is the tempo marking of Schubert’s Rondo in A Major, Op. 107, D. 951, and it is half-remembered snippets of this work that occur most frequently in Stucky’s Dream. In this stream of unconsciousness pastiche we could hear the dotted rhythmic figures central to the Rondo, more generalized Schubertian chromatic chord progressions but also a lovely quote from the “Catacombs” section of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as well as snatches of not-quite-definable other works. Keeping in mind the composer’s dream conception, Chien and Schumann let these musical references emerge from the texture but never highlighted them. Although one could perceive a light-hearted section and a darker one, the work’s prevailing mistiness allied it with earlier Debussy. As a tribute to other composers, Stucky’s work is not ineffective, but as a musical statement in itself, it did not fully sustain interest, particularly when surrounded by masterpieces. One could not, however, fault the expressive and committed performance of Chien and Schumann.

Perhaps it was to encourage us to listen to the Stucky as an independent piece that the artists chose to place the Schubert Rondo in A Major after it; in any case, it was another example of Chameleon Arts’ original thinking. As noted by Boldin and the program booklet, Schubert’s title doesn’t really do justice to the structure of this wondrous work which is a hybrid of three forms: rondo, sonata, and theme and variations. Written five months before the composer’s cruelly early death at 31, it is the perfect example of his straddling of two epochs. The sunny rondo theme, presented initially with shapely phrases but essentially straightforwardly, returned three times over the course of the piece, each time with a different, subtle variation by Schubert. As the piece progressed, Chien and Schumann widened the dynamic range, particularly in the episodes (i.e., non-rondo-themed sections), and their rubato also increased organically, underlining the composer’s journey from Classical to Romantic. Moreover, for sheer musical beauty, this elegant and expressive performance would be hard to surpass, maintaining limpid tone and clear textures even in the most florid passages as well as immaculate ensemble and balances.

Gloria Chien (file photo)

Gloria Chien (file photo)

Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring is hardly a likely candidate for a piano-four-hands performance, though this was the composer’s preliminary version prior to orchestration; in fact, the first piano performance of its Part I was by none other than Debussy and Stravinsky. If variety of orchestral color is significant to the ballet’s impact, Stravinsky’s unprecedented treatment of rhythm is equally if not more so—justification, if any were needed, for a piano performance. Akin to scanning the score with a magnifying glass, the more percussive sound of the keyboard made inescapable that this is not a lyrical and orderly Hollywood-style depiction of the arrival of spring; it is rather the spring of pagan Russian tradition—frequently eruptive and convulsive, with associations of giving birth. Stravinsky told Robert Craft what he loved most in Russia was “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking.” Even 102 years after its notorious premiere (occasioning the most famous riot in musical history), The Rite of Spring retains its power to electrify and fascinate—at least in the performance of stellar accomplishment we were privileged to hear. Schumann and Chien again displayed their preternatural synchronization in every type of rhythmic challenge, e.g., the nearly arhythmic opening song of the bassoon and other woodwinds, the irregular accents among the brutal pounding chords of “The Harbingers of Spring”, and the seemingly unrelated simultaneous rhythms of the concluding “Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen Victim”. Additionally, Schumann and Chien provided exemplary orchestral piano-playing with nuances of pedaling and touch: generally gentle keystrokes for woodwinds and strings versus vigorous and brilliant attacks for brass and percussion. In a performance of the first rank, I daresay these superb musicians gave us Stravinsky’s primal conception of his seminal ballet, making believers of many who were initially dubious.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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