IN: Reviews

For Terror and For Play: Two Pianos

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“It is worth noting that Rachmaninoff and his music are far removed from the hostile and horrendous events taking place today, and the discussion of his music should in no way signify the support or address the violence and injustice currently being enacted by Russia,” according to program notes from a previous concert. But Vyacheslav Gryaznov and Vladimir Rumyantsev’s performance of the former’s two-piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances for Sound Ways’ “The Art of the Piano Duo” on Sunday at First Church in Boston made it nearly impossible to forget about the violence and injustice in Ukraine and other places.

I reacted thus not only to the music itself, but also to Gryaznov’s two-piano arrangement. The composer left his own two piano arrangement, which was first performed a few days before his death by the composer himself and Vladimir Horowitz. In the last 30 years or so, the piece has made increasingly frequent appearances at those times when two pianists with technical equipment sufficient to the challenge join forces for a duo piano recital — a list that includes Martha Argerich & Nelson Freire, Emmanuel Ax & Yefim Bronfman, Vladimir Ashkenazy & Andre Previn, and Nikolai Lugansky & Boris Berezovsky.

In making his own arrangement, Gryaznov has said that he means no disrespect for that of the composer.  “I merely wanted to emphasize certain details that I hear in the orchestral version that were perhaps not underlined enough [in the composer’s arrangement].” While he is not as celebrated in the United States as he deserves, Gryaznov, who is now in his early 40s and who has lived in the US since 2016, is considered by many connoisseurs to be among the most important pianists of his generation. He is also a skillful and prolific transcriber, with more than 50 keyboard arrangements of popular (mostly Russian) repertory to his credit.

While I will always treasure every note written by Rachmaninoff (and that includes his two-piano arrangement of the Dances), it is still possible to admire what Gryaznov has accomplished. Listening to his work with the equally gifted Rumyantsev, who came to the US as a graduate student about 10 years ago and has lived in NYC since then, was almost as overwhelming as hearing a great orchestra play it ― something that the composer’s own arrangement doesn’t achieve.

In the Dances Rachmaninoff intended to stun and terrify the listener. It is easy to forget that Symphonic Dances ― like Prokofiev’s three “War” Piano Sonatas and his First Sonata for Violin and Piano and Shostakovitch’s Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 and his Trio No.2 ― arrived in the imminent shadow of WWII and its subsequent devastation. Rachmaninoff wrote the piece in 1940 before Russia officially entered the war, but he knew that war was inevitable, having known of the several occasions when Hitler had expressed his goal of creating more Lebensraum for Germany by the eventual extermination of Russia’s Slavic and Jewish peoples by mass deportation to Siberia, enslavement and genocide. The composer knew how much the populations of Czechoslovakia and Poland were suffering because of Germany’s occupation. One of his daughters was living in German-occupied France, his older brother and several friends, some of them Jewish, were still living in Russia.           

Gryaznov’s arrangement included everything that Rachmaninoff’s had, but his editing has made the music’s opening more forceful, more closely resembling the snaring brasses and thunderous timpani. strikes. His editing could also be detected in the treatment of the coda, in which the composer references his Symphony No. 1. Gryaznov makes the passage more exquisite, thus calling attention to it, by utilizing more of the treble registers of the instruments. The original titles of the music’s three movements were Morning, Noon, and Night. And even though those titles were abandoned, the colors of the orchestration become progressively darker. Gryaznov’s arrangement suggests this darkening with greater use of the lower registers of the two instruments. His editorial changes made the appearances of the Dies Irae, a frequent visitor to much of the composer’s music, more obvious and, therefore, more sinister and macabre. The changes in the third movement were perhaps even more interesting. The passage work in the movement is refigured, again with emphasis on the lower registers, in such a way that it begins to sound like Mussorgsky’s “Catacombs” in Pictures at an Exhibition with its Cum mortuis in lingua mortuis (“With the Dead in a Dead Language”) inscription. It is at this point ― the darkest in the final movement ― that the composer references his music for the All-Night Vigil, the Russian Orthodox ceremony that celebrates the victory over evil by the resurrected Christ and the coming of the light.

It is the conquest of light over darkness in this often-dark work that Rachmaninoff celebrates with the most brilliant sounding colors of the orchestra. This is quite impossible to do on a piano ― even two of them. But Gryaznov nearly accomplishes it in the coda. He calls upon the full resources of the pianists and their instruments, creating a level of sheer sound that I do not believe can be attained in Rachmaninoff’s own two-piano arrangement. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such clangor coming from one or two or however many pianos — and neither, apparently, had most of the audience. At the conclusion, the audience appeared to have suffered concussive shock. For a few seconds, they sat in stunned silence until some brave soul yelled out Bravo! and only then applause ensued.

On records and off, I’ve heard several two-piano performances that matched the brilliance and ensemble coordination of Gryaznov and Rumyantsev — among them those by Freire and Argerich, by Berezovsky and Lugansky and by Alexeev and Demidenko — but I can’t think of any that surpassed this one in First Church Boston. That’s a remarkably extravagant complement because ― with the possible exceptions of Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor, D.940, and Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K.448 — Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances may be the greatest work ever written for two pianos.

And, speaking of Mozart, this recital’s first half contained two genuine two-piano curiosities: Mozart’s Sonatas K. 283 and K. 457 in Edvard Grieg’s arrangements. Teachers have often accompanied their students on a second piano, and Grieg enjoyed playing his arrangements so much that they have entered the piano duo repertory to some extent.

It wasn’t Mozart that Gryaznov and Rumyantsev channeled, but rather the spirit of Mozart viewed from far off in a Nordic light. Heard with this in mind, it was impossible to resist their performance of K. 283, with a straight-faced Gryaznov delivering the Mozart and Rumyantsev joyously delivering Grieg’s commentary. Grieg’s adaptation of K. 457, one of Mozart’s great, if few, minor key masterpieces, was another story. What Gryaznov and Rumyantsev performed was, if not genuine Mozart, genuinely substantial and dark music. Imagine Mozart re-imagined with a Romantic-era, near-Byronic sensibility and with the kind of tension and texture that characterize the master from Bonn is music like that of the final movement of Opus 27, No. 2, or the Variations in C Minor. If you cannot stretch the imagination that far, that’s because what Gryaznov and Rumyatsev performed with such zest was the greatest sonata for two pianos that Beethoven never wrote.

The Art of the Piano Duo series continues on June 15th at 8 PM, First Church Boston, with a concert by Alexzander Rudin (piano and cello) and Ekaterina Derzhavina (piano) in music by Franz Schubert for piano four hands as well as for cello and piano.

Stephen Wigler has a peculiarly geekish interest in the piano and in pianists. He has served over the years as a staff music critic in Orlando and Baltimore.

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