Frederic Chiu and Andrew Russo aren’t a full-time piano duo team. (Russo isn’t even a full-time pianist.) But they have played together before, including a previous appearance in the Maverick series. On Saturday, August 29, they played a solo each and two large works in collaboration, one unsatisfactory, the other a triumph.
Schubert’s Divertissement à la Hongroise began the program. Even among Schubert’s works for piano duo, not the most explored area of his music these days, it’s a relatively obscure piece. Frankly, although it was published in his lifetime, and it was recorded on 78s by Artur and Karl Ulrich Schnabel, it’s not one of Schubert’s masterpieces. Half an hour long, its charms tend to vaporize as it progresses.
There seems to be an interpretive consensus today about playing Schubert on the piano, that even at the most dramatic moments or the strongest dynamic contrasts, the pianist’s tone should always be mellow. Chiu and Russo kept the piece moving, but their wide dynamic range often led to edgy, clangy tone, especially from Russo (who was playing the primo part).
Russo’s solo performance of Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s Three Tone Pictures showed better tonal manners, but there was still some clang at fortissimo. Griffes isn’t getting the respect he deserves these days; he was an American innovator and a composer of serious talent. These three little pieces aren’t as adventurous as Griffes’s great Piano Sonata, but they’re fascinating as examples of early American impressionism. Overall I felt Russo did them justice.
Chiu is something of a Prokofiev specialist and has recorded the composer’s complete piano works. He gave us a real treat by playing the complete “Visions fugitives,” some of Prokofiev’s most imaginative piano music–and certainly his most concise, 20 miniatures averaging a minute each. I remember hearing a disc of Chiu playing Prokofiev Sonatas years ago and finding it too mild-tempered, but this performance was just right.
After intermission, Chiu and Russo returned, parts reversed (Chiu as primo), for the piano four hands version of Le sacre du printemps which Stravinsky apparently prepared for ballet rehearsals and previews. It’s not exactly a novelty but it doesn’t get played very often. What’s left when you lose all that gorgeous orchestral color? Quite a bit, as it happens; all the rhythmic power, the clash and clang of the musical barbarism, the biting dissonances. I’m still trying to figure out whether some harsh tone just suited this music better than the Schubert, or whether–as I suspected at the time–the playing just didn’t have any edgy tone to it. Whatever the cause of the difference, I was never troubled by the piano sound in this consistently exciting performance. It seemed the pianists were actually producing more tonal variety than they had in the Schubert. I’ve never studied the orchestral score of this work, but I think the sound of it is pretty well ingrained in my memory after half a century of listening to it. So I think I’m safe in concluding that this performance, in addition to being full of impulse and excitement, was also very accurate. It was a compelling, thrilling experience, and the full house reacted with the kind of enthusiasm it deserved.