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Paired Pianists Surmount French Duos


Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne (Christani Pal photo)

Celebrity Series of Boston continued springing new avenues, this time, with Scotsman Steven Osborne and Englishman Paul Lewis teaming up in French piano duos. No surprise the Jordan Hall turnout enjoyed a mix of Stravinsky swings and Poulenc swoons in the latter’s early duo. Osborne-Lewis regaled distinctive nods to youth from Fauré, Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel.

Paul Lewis’s words informed. “Steven and I began playing duets about 20 years ago. It’s always a pleasure to make music with him.” Throughout Friday evening’s duo-piano parade of not-so-difficult pieces to play, pieces not making any real physical virtuosic demands, Osborne and Lewis illustrated what such friendship combined with artistry can create. For one thing, could a listener distinguish one pair of hands from another?

They opened with the oft-played Dolly, a suite of six pieces for piano duet in which Gabriel Fauré celebrates the daughter of singer Emma Bardac. With Lewis on primo and Osborne on secondo, the pretty melody gently pealed out over a subdued arpeggiated accompaniment in Berceuse. Kitty -Valse danced in childlike magic. Delicateness in their Tendress and crispness in Pas Espagnol had Jordan Hall as attentive as I have ever heard it.

Osborne and Lewis exchanged parts as they would do for the rest of their program. In the Sonata for piano four hands by the not-quite-20-year-old Francis Poulenc, crunchy, clustery chords popped out in memorable strikes from the duo. The duo thought out the white-key little melody of the second movement, Rustique, as we might find in the purity of a child. Theirs was semi-serious tongue-in-cheek Poulenc.

The evening’s highlight had to be this duo-piano team’s trip with Debussy’s Six Épigraphes Antiques. Thinking of the Épigraphes origin, the erotic incidental music for Chanson de Bilitis, from which these little four-hand masterpieces stem, no easy entrée presents itself. From solo flute melodies arranged for the piano to extended dream states in whole-tone gravity defiance, all in an improvisatory mode, make this forbiddingly mythic work challenging. Osborne-Lewis eschewed making pleasantry of this Debussy. Their captivation with this strange new world as translated to their instrument reached an acute reflectiveness in an overwhelming beauty. 

Intermission gave breathing space and contrast. Debussy’s Petite Suite, possibly written at the request of a publisher for music that amateurs could play, re-echoed the playfulness of Dolly. For En bateau, the secondo’s fullness secured undulation for the primo’s trusting melody. The interior sections of En bateau, Cortege, Menuet and Ballet, though, would leave the salon like opening-closing format instead for real tonal adventure. In those interiors, the duo created a continuous luminescence of light without heat.

Stravinsky composed his duets, Trois Pièces Faciles, (“Three easy pieces”) for children to play. The secondo part is easy as in the polka where the same simple oompah accompaniment never changes while the primo part is tough to get under the fingers. Those straight harmonies of secondo against the out-of-key tunes of Stravinsky’s primo where the pianist seems not able to keep up provided further artistic fodder for Osborne-Lewis and their alluring pianism. The duo drew in the Russian’s acidity thankfully giving the pieces a face that might be saying: “You didn’t really catch that slip-up, did you?”

Ravel wrote his Mother Goose Suite for his friend’s children, six-year old Mimi and seven-year old Jean. This Ravel, according to Osborne and Lewis, veered toward classical, away from modern, toward formal outlines, away from vividness. An exception, highest keys summoned Chinese mallets in Impératrice des pagodes, ­and another, pedaling with soft touches simulated the celeste. Their programmatic concept engaged all the way; even the quieter close with Mother Goose appeared “daring.”

Their encore relaxed the French focus with the  E Minor Dumka from Dvořák’s Op. 72 Slavonic Dances.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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