IN: Reviews

Schubert: Pf-Four Hands & With Cello

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The two-concert series, “The Art of the Piano Duo,” which concluded Saturday at Boston First Church, left listeners wanting to hear more. Sound Ways, the not-for-profit that has for six years introduced extraordinary musicians (almost all of them from the former Soviet Union), decided to sponsor a duo piano series because its repertory of masterpieces belong to what is possibly the most misunderstood and unappreciated genre in all of what is called classical music. (Sound Ways originally scheduled three concerts, but the second was cancelled because one of the Russian pianists engaged for the series was denied visas to enter the United States.)

If the first concert ― in which Vyacheslav Gryaznov’s virtuosic arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances featured as the principal work― concentrated on the glittering aspects of the duo piano repertory, then Saturday’s all-Schubert concert focused on its purely musical aspects, revealing that the duo repertory is not only an arena in which virtuosity is on display, but also, and perhaps primarily, a form of chamber music. In fact, the distinguished Russian musicians, Alexander Rudin and Ekaterina Derzhavina, played equal amounts of music for piano four hands and music for piano and cello.

Alexander Rudin, at 64,  is not only one of the most prominent Russian cellists of the generation that succeeded that of Mstislav Rostropovich and Daniil Shafran, but he is also  ― like Rostropovich ―  a gifted pianist; that is why he deserved to be seated alongside the 56-year-old Derzhavina, a celebrated solo pianist.

The recital opened with a lovely performance Schubert’s “Eight Variations on a French Song” D. 608. The first four variations on the somber minor theme proceeded at a march-like pace, with both pianists providing enough expressivity to make them sound enjoyable rather than repetitive. But with the fifth variation flowed exquisitely lyrical realms. At the treble side of the instrument, Derzhavina provided the magic with silver-bell-like virtuosity—all of it solidly underpinned by Rudin’s disciplined rhythmic control at the bass end. After the dramatic sixth variation, the seventh ranged from the subdued to the warmly expressive, and the eighth returned to the marching mode of the opening, with a freedom and vigor excited the finale.

Rudin left the piano bench to pick up his cello for the Sonatina in G Minor D. 408. It was, of course written for the violin, but Rudin plays his instrument with ― as David Oistrakh once remarked about the playing of Shafran and Rostropovich ― “with a variety of bow strokes, a lightness of virtuosity and an elegance of technique that should be envied by many violinists.”

Rudin and Derzhavina managed to make each detail expressive, at the same time making each phrase sound natural in expression. They both knew how, even when playing quietly, how to make music sing with an effortless legato. They captured the liveliness of the first, second and final fourth movement as well as the naïve sweetness of the third movement, with its difficult-to-achieve Andantino tempo; it moved with an unfaltering pace that maintained its tension.

The Characteristic March in C Major D.968b danced with a furious liveliness in which not a single note seemed out of place.

The second half began with the brilliant take on the Rondo in D Major D.608. The trading back and forth of theme and accompaniment passages proved intriguing in its twists and turns from one end of the keyboard to the other and back again. It all ended with an explosion of excitement in the movement’s challenging and chromatically complex coda.

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