Andrew Russo and Frederic Chiu make a slightly strange piano duo. Chiu is a full-time pianist and teacher, a success in his field with an impressive discography. Russo, a one-time protégé of Chiu, studied piano seriously, made his orchestral debut at 13, placed in the finals of the 2001 Cliburn Competition, and runs a foundation supporting music education in the schools of Syracuse, where he lives. But he’s also an investment advisor and a politician, and thus not a full-time musician.
The difference between the two showed on the first half of their Maverick Concerts program of Sept. 3rd, which gave each a major French piano solo work. Chiu produced his typically beautiful tone in Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, although it turned briefly spiky in the Menuet. His “Clair de lune” was very smooth, with lots of pedal. I may have heard performances of this music I liked better, but it was a thoroughly creditable performance.
Russo took on the greater challenge, Ravel’s Miroirs, with the notoriously difficult “Alborada del gracioso.” His tone was very nice in the opening “Noctuelles,” his playing relaxed, clear, and accurate. The dynamics of “Oiseaux trieste” were wide-ranging, but a bit of brass crept into his tone. By “Alborada,” the strain was clearly showing. The most difficult passages, including the very fast repeated notes, lacked clarity, and his sound became quite edgy; the tonal production, which became unpleasant at moments, continued into the final “La vallée des cloches.” By substituting the gesture for the execution, Russo got an enthusiastic response from the audience. This is, after all, pretty damn exciting music, and hearing it played at all well is an experience. But it could have been a lot better.
After intermission the pianists played duets. Ravel’s arrangement of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is an act of respectful homage, but I think too much of the music’s essential color is gone, like seeing an old black-and-white reproduction of a great painting. The pianists’ coordination was good but if you listened hard enough you could hear imperfections. This duo’s playing of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was a highlight of last summer’s Maverick season. I was a little less impressed with their Petrushka, good as it was. Somehow the level of electricity in the playing seemed lower, although it picked up steam as it went along. Many years ago I heard a Gunther Schuller radio broadcast about this piece in which he mentioned the essential element of interruption rather than development as Stravinsky’s organizing principle in this work. (His favorite orchestral recording at the time was by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and it’s indeed a splendid performance.) Chiu and Russo expressed this element quite well. And it was also fascinating to hear that much of the effect of this music which I usually think of as coming from colorist effects is actually Stravinsky’s innovative harmony, unaltered and thus effective in this version.
So, in short, a generally satisfying concert, if not the brain-buster I heard last summer.