IN: Reviews

Panacheful Two-Piano Artistry

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After experiencing Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876, Edvard Grieg felt that he needed time to unwind. With his friend John Paulson, the composer traveled all over Norway. The prolonged getaway, coupled with memories of Wagner’s mystical world, invited new creative perspectives. The music of Mozart provided the impetus, and Grieg adapted four of the composer’s piano sonatas for two-piano arrangements.

In doing so, Grieg effectively orchestrated Mozart’s originals by adding rapid scales, Alberti basses, and echo effects to many of the themes. While purists may see these efforts as distortions of already perfected forms, the accompaniments, in the right hands, can enhance Mozart’s carefully crafted sense of balance and urgency.

Enter pianists Vyacheslav Gryaznov and Vladimir Rumyantsev, who together rendered two of these Grieg-Mozart reimaginings with grandeur and elegance in their duo recital at First Church in Boston this past weekend. The event, sponsored by Sound Ways, opened a two-part series, “Art of the Piano Duo.”

Individually, Gryaznov and Rumyantsev strike a balance between pianistic power and sensitivity. Both current US residents had studied at the Moscow Conservatory, and have embarked on solo careers that have seen them tackle a wide range of repertoire. Gryaznov has made transcriptions of orchestral works the focus of several albums—one involves piano versions of Russian music, another, more wide ranging, sees him perform on piano Ravel’s La Valse, movements from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and even Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Grieg’s arrangements of Mozart’s K. 283 and K. 457 sonatas found Gryaznov and Rumyantsev walking a wire between excess and serenity. By itself, the Sonata in G major, K. 283 is a light-hearted affair. But the textures Grieg adds to its symmetrical  structure and nimble, easy-breathing flow transform this music into a near showpiece.

The pianists unfolded the first movement with delicacy that gradually gathered weight and dimension as it progressed. Resonant lower octaves brought weight to the second theme, with the effect feeling like a chamber orchestration.

At times one missed the delightful sparseness of the original Andante. But there’s still much to enjoy in Grieg’s retooling—Rumyantsev’s accompaniment instead wrapped Gryaznov’s lines in a soft blanket of sound. Gentle rubato, executed with perfect timing, even teased out the hidden mysteries of this dialogue between the gracefulness of Classicism and the indulgences of Romanticism.

Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor, K. 457 provides both of those extremes on its own. Biographer Jan Swafford even remarked that this score, which likely inspired Beethoven’s Pathètique Sonata, is “nervous and implacable, the intensity unrelenting.”

Grieg’s accompaniments add even more fuel to the fire without spreading into an uncontrolled conflagration. Gryaznov and Rumyantsev channeled delicacy and power in the right amounts. Taking the lead, Gryaznov let the opening figures move in a gentle sweep, while Rumyantsev leaned into the dark extremes of Grieg’s left-hand octaves. Everything felt like a controlled burn, like embers beneath the crackling energy.

In the Adagio, their positions reversed: Rumyantsev added splashed of color as he doubled Gryaznov’s figures an octave higher. And if the echo effects of Grieg’s accompaniment later in the movement can feel like mere garnish, the duo played with enough panache to tease out the tender pathos of Mozart’s original.

The Allegro assai revealed the duo’s dramatic strengths. They built the tension slowly while carefully drawing out the curves of each melodic and harmonic shape. We experienced chamber music at its finest—where  arguments can sometimes grow out of friendly banter.

Convincing as these readings were, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances offered the evening’s greatest fireworks. Composed in 1940, Rachmaninoff’s final orchestral score reflects scenes long vanished from a world gone mad. He made his own two-piano arrangement of the score. So, there was quite a bit at stake with Gryaznov’s transcription for two pianos, which we heard Saturday. For starters, how can a pair of pianists best capture the sheer force of the tutti hits in the outer movements? And can they depict the flute and saxophone solos in the original with the right amount of shape and color?

But Gryaznov and Rumyantsev pproduced seismic force when the music called for it. Chords rang heavy without tipping into crash-and-bang clamor. And their soft tones allowed for the opening gestures to build to those moments naturally. Rumyantsev made his line—the saxophone solo in the original—sing during the first movement’s middle section.

The duo managed the off-kilter rhythms in the finale with simpatico give and take. Here, too, they captured a searching distance in the middle section, where they traded phrases with ethereal finesse.

While Rachmaninoff offered little commentary on what he meant by the central waltz, Gryaznov and Rumyantsev hinted at nostalgia. Their lines rose, turned in graceful arcs, and fell away to leave a lingering warmth that felt like a memory of things long past. Like a bistered old cabinet, these sounds reflect as much of what was lost during global conflicts–past as much as present. And as these pianists  revealed so powerfully, there’s often more to music than its performance.

The duo rewarded the applause with two encores: Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” and Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” both arranged by Gryaznov and played with aplomb.

Aaron Keebaugh’s work has been featured in The Musical Times, Corymbus, The Classical Review, Early Music America, BBC Radio 3, and the Arts Fuse, for which he writes regularly about classical music. A musicologist, Aaron teaches at North Shore Community College in Danvers and Lynn.

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