Chamber Music New Zealand hosts exciting concert by pianos and percussion

Chamber Music New Zealand: “Rhythm and Resonance”

Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, K 448; Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (arr. Guldborg); Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (arr. Ptaszynska)

Diedre Irons and Michael Endres – pianos; Thomas Guldborg and Lenny Sakovsky – percussion

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 26 August, 7:30 pm

This step outside the usual range of string-dominant chamber music attracted a big house in the Michael Fowler Centre; the welcome by CEO Euan Murdoch also suggested that a larger number of younger people had been drawn by this programme, with its less familiar instrumental context, yet of major works.

And he drew attention to the use of an overhead camera that projected a bird’s eye view of the array of instruments – mainly the percussion – on the stage.

But the concert began with the only sonata that Mozart wrote for two pianos (the only other piece for two pianos is a Fugue in C minor, K 426). It’s a magnificent richly melodic masterpiece that responded whole-heartedly to treatment by four hands on two Steinways – the thought of any possible advantage from fortepianos never entered my head. The performance exploited the sonic possibilities of two instruments without producing sounds that were too dense or cluttered.

The two instruments were lined up side by side rather than facing each other with their bodies curling intimately together; so the primo player (in this case Diedre Irons) was visually dominant. The two have not dissimilar approaches to performance, devoted to playing of clarity and vigour as well as a scrupulous treatment of the varying dynamics. Even more impressive was their subtle rhythmic elasticity which, from the very percussive nature of the piano, poses a considerable challenge for two players: mere ensemble is hard enough.

In brief, this was music of genius played by two pianists who were virtually flawless in ensemble and musical spirit, and their performance entranced me from start to finish. There are so many beguiling phases, among the most charming the exquisite trill-opened motifs near the beginning of the Andante which were crystal clear yet imbued with magic.

The performance of Ravel’s Tombeau might have surprised an audience unprepared for the arrangement of the stage, pianos removed, leaving it dominated by three marimbas to be played by the two NZSO percussionists. From the start I found myself quite accepting of the altered quality of the music: much as I love the piano original, I am particularly partial to the marimba. Yet I wondered whether there might have been some monotony in the sound after a while. But that was at least partly avoided as Sakofsky moved, at the beginning of the Forlane, from the marimba at right angles to the audience, to one facing the audience, that produced a somewhat brighter, keen-edged tone. The spirit of Ravel survived excellently, since the eight mallets flourished by the players seemed to encompass all the notes in the piano score.

After the interval there were further re-arrangements: marimbas moved to the rear and xylophones, along with tam tam, side and bass drums, timpani and cymbals filled the stage. Oddly, this was one of the first truly ‘modern’ pieces of classical music I came to know through the small but curious collection that my girl-friend (later my wife) brought to our joint LP collection when we were about 21. It’s one of those works that seems to sound just as shocking and barbaric now as it did then (and that performance, an Argo recording paired with Contrasts for piano, violin and clarinet, still surprises me by its violent sounds and extreme dynamic contrasts).

What we heard on Tuesday was rather more well-mannered and less fierce. In addition, the big acoustic of the MFC subdues the harshness and acerbity of extreme sounds, and it was no doubt the more civilised sound that the four players produced that allowed the audience to enjoy this classic of modernity as they evidently did, judging from the applause. I think it loses little with less hard-edged sound and brutalism and that was the way it came off the stage; though it would have been too much to ask that such music be flawless in togetherness and finesse.

Incidentally, instead of being on the medium level stage as earlier chamber music concerts, including the Houstoun Beethoven concerts, had been, these performances which involved more instruments were at the usual high level of the stage which makes visibility difficult for the front dozen rows – hence the usefulness of the view from above, projected on the screen.

The last item had not been on the advertised programme or otherwise conspicuously announced: Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is shorter than other famous treatments of this piece (Paganini’s 24th violin Caprice), though there are about twelve variations (the programme note did not disclose and that was my slightly uncertain count).  Lutoslawski wrote it in the early years of the war in German-occupied Warsaw, when he and Panufnik lived by playing piano duets in cabarets (for a revelatory account of that, read Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself). It was about the only one of Lutoslawski’s pieces to survive the horrendous German onslaught on Warsaw to put down the famous Warsaw uprising, as the Soviet army sat on the other side of the Vistula and did nothing to support the Polish resistance.

What we heard was an arrangement of the two-piano original commissioned by the Danish Safri Duo, made not by the composer, but by Polish Chicago composer Marta Ptaszynska. Compared with that original, I have to confess to finding the percussion additions a little superfluous. The original, which contains echoes of the Rachmaninov version, is sufficiently percussive and the addition of percussion instruments seemed to reduce the unique impact of the two pianos which, in good hands has all the brilliance, excitement and visceral scariness that is needed to bring a concert like this to a thrilling, hire-wire climax.

To hear and see what I mean, look at You Tube for a recent performance by Anastasia and Liubov Gromoglasova in Moscow. However, that is a small matter alongside the otherwise brilliant exhibition of skill and musicality that these four splendid musicians demonstrated in all four works. I had the very clear impression of a delighted audience leaving the MFC at the end.



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