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Gerstein and Adès Reprise Tanglewood Gig

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Celebrity Series and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players jointly offered BSO regular Kirill Gerstein and BSO Artistic Partner Thomas Adès in a two-piano concert at Jordan Hall on Friday night, including some of the most familiar 20th-century repertory in unfamiliar guises, as well as a transcribed sample from Adès’s Powder Her Face that the audience might not have known before, except for those who heard the same concert last summer in Tanglewood. [HERE] or Odyssey Opera’s 2015 audience for the complete work.

Debussy’s triptych En blanc et noir, one of the finest works in the entire two-piano repertory, dates from the brilliant farewell summer of 1915 when he was already critically ill from cancer. It is like no other in his entire oeuvre. As a two-piano piece it never includes back-and-forth dialogue; its sound is rather that of a giant single piano with two keyboards, displaying an absolutely unified but miraculously colored texture in all three movements. The first movement is a freely-varied sonata form, representing Debussy’s late-in-life gradual return to the classical forms that he had cast aside in his youth; the second, a grim and satirical war-march memorial to a fellow musician killed in battle a few months earlier; the third, a dreamlike Scherzando with an overlay of the puckish spirit of Petrushka by Stravinsky, to whom it is dedicated (and who liked it). It may well have been because of my seating location, but I had trouble comprehending the two-piano blend. Piano I stood upstage, with the cover raised; Piano II downstage with the cover removed, and at many moments I thought that Piano II dominated. In the first movement especially, the Avec emportement (“angry”) beginning, with two converging diatonic lines of triads, the descending upper line needed to be stronger against the rising lower. Balance was better in the other two movements, ff in the second and pp dolce espressivo in the third, where we also heard some excellent dynamic contrast; but I had more serious reservations about the two pianists’ free challenges to Debussy’s tempi — where, admittedly, there is ample room for argument because Debussy includes many tempo indications but only one basic metronome marking for each movement.

Robert Craft’s diary of his and Stravinsky’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1962 casually mentions a piano score prepared by Shostakovich in admiration of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. What we heard turned out to be a two-piano arrangement, incorporating the choral parts; it clarified some of the crunchy counterpoint that is sometimes not easily audible in the orchestral version when the choral parts cover it. The four-note basic motive that underlies all three movements is readily understood: B-D-B♭-D♭ in eighths simultaneously with F-A♭-E-G in quarters, at no. 7 in the first movement; C-E♭-B-D in the second-movement fugue subject; and in the trumpet, inverted, G-B♭-A♭-C at no. 3 in the third. Most of all, hearing this arrangement reminded us of how Stravinsky composed at the piano and tested out every sonority from one harmony to the next, and how much each of these meant to him. Gerstein and Adès approached the work directly as a study in duo-pianistic sound, and with careful attention and control. This was, in itself, the most revelatory performance of the evening.

Witold Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini is a favorite of two-piano teams, but it is also a political statement; he composed it in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Poland and its helter-skelter dissonances and wildly athletic style can be regarded as an egg-in-your-face item of pianistic irreverence in the manner of Bartók or Stravinsky. The same irreverence can be found occasionally in Liszt’s and even Brahms’s treatment of the same beloved dance from Paganini’s 24th Caprice. This uninhibitedly brash traversal never paused for breath, and the audience loved it.

After the intermission came a real rarity: Lindaraja by Debussy, dating from 1901. This is a six-minute habañera in the manner of Ravel’s Habañera from 1895, which Debussy unapologetically stole from also in Soirée dans Grenade, and using some of the exact-same harmony. But just hearing Lindaraja could have delighted us.

Thomas Adès’s opera Powder Her Face deals with modern glitz and scandal, but in preparing a “concert paraphrase” he wrote: “…I have taken four scenes from the opera and freely transcribed them as a piano piece… rather in the manner of Liszt or Busoni.”  Cascades of arpeggios, roulades, and bunched notes, even melodies in parallel seconds ranged all around both keyboards, but usually in a rhythmically contrasting background of colorful, swingy harmony with melodic gestures that reminded me of Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. A provision of banging harmony, rather like fisticuffs may have been in strident echo of the scandal, but it all seemed well blended and appropriate to the overall sound.  Thomas Adès took a separate bow as the composer of the work he had just played; he enjoyed the premiere of his new piano concerto last week with the Boston Symphony.

Ravel’s La valse in two-piano transcription by the composer suffers, like the original orchestral version — I’ve written about this before — from passages of excessive textural overload, which rob it of the harmonic transparency one ordinarily expects from Ravel. This is especially true as the final climaxes surge and build to savage violence and then abruptly collapse, like the decadent Austro-Hungarian empire that “That Waltz” is supposed to depict. There may not be a real remedy for how Ravel miscalculated before going overboard in the emotional turmoil of this piece; but it is a great enough composition anyway despite the defects. Did this version totally turn off Diaghilev? A permanent rupture between Diaghilev and Ravel ensued. But on this night, the energy of the two excellent pianists caused a happy fury in the crowd.

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, harmony.

Last summer in Tanglewood. (Hilary Scott photo)

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