Duo pianists charm and delight lunchtime concertgoers at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts presents:
Sunny Cheng and Otis Prescott-Mason – Piano Four Hands

SCHUBERT – Rondo in A Major D.951
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Allegro Brilliante Op.82
SAINT-SAENS – Carnival of the Animals

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

A delightful programme! I thought I’d not heard the Mendelssohn Andante and Allegro Brilliante before, but, upon checking the “Middle C” website discovered to my bemusement that I had seen and heard  pianist Sunny Cheng play this and the Schubert Rondo in A Major already, on that occasion with fellow-pianist Kris Zuelicke at Victoria University’s Adam Concert Room over a year ago!  While enjoying the concert as a whole I had doubts regarding the duo’s playing of the Schubert on that occasion, thinking the performance lacked a certain light and shade, and wondered whether the immediacy of the venue had something to do with the impression given – here, in the more ample St.Andrew’s acoustic I appreciated Cheng’s playing of the Schubert far more readily (this time, of course, with a different pianistic partner!) The music here seemed to take on an extra “bloom”, suiting far better Schubert’s “orchestral” writing in places, and allowing the playing’s dynamics more space in which to fully register.

Cheng’s partner this time round was Otis Prescott-Mason, a young Wellington pianist who in recent times has won various awards for his playing – I’ve yet to hear him undertake a complete recital, but what I’ve heard as part of various competitions certainly indicates his enormous promise. He and Cheng certainly seemed well-suited as duo partners, as evidenced by the loveliness of the Schubert Rondo’s opening on this occasion, the music seeming to “happen” rather than consciously begun, with a beautifully flowing tempo that allowed detail the space to register and flower, a journey to be savoured along its course here as well as registered merely in a kind of retrospective afterglow.

I thought the composer’s “orchestral” writing in places finely contrasted with the opening up of new worlds as the music changed key and brought forth variations of texture (beautifully-etched staccato triplets) and for a heart-stopping moment a “ghosting” of the finale of the contemporaneous A Major D.959 Sonata, all integrated winningly into the whole, as was the “role-swapping” towards the end, with the secondo player (Prescott-Mason) taking the theme and the primo (Cheng) providing filigree accompanying chords. And we were able to truly relish the assertiveness of the theme’s last statement making its presence felt before dying away to a poignant ending.

The Schubert had by this time “honed” us to perfection for the Mendelssohn work’s beautiful opening pliability, the melodies bedecked with gentle impulse and spun with great finesse by the duo, before the music’s cheekily irruptive transition spun us into the engaging “allegro”, its “brilliante” expressed as much by an engaging variety of touch and texture as by its velocity or volume. These textures were judiciously layered, the sounds as irresistibility wrought as a fountain’s overflowing, everything splashing and glittering as the impulses rushed everywhere, then towards the end savouring the hesitancies of the “question-and-answer” sequences before plunging headlong into the work’s coda, catching us all up in its excitement and abandonment.

Afterwards came something of a curiosity, one I hadn’t realised even existed – a piano duet version of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, presumably the one mentioned most frequently on the internet, made by Lucien Garban, a composer and music arranger who made similar transcriptions of numerous works by various French composers, many of whom were his contemporaries – among them Debussy, Ravel, D’Indy, Dukas and Roussel. As Saint-Saens’ original work was scored for two pianos and chamber ensemble, the “four hands” here had a great deal to do on their single keyboard, acquitting themselves with plenty of suitable panache, piquancy and poetry as required by each of the characterisations.

The King of Beasts naturally enough dominated the music’s first menagerie batch, his Royal March given plenty of pomp and circumstance and punctuated by fearsome roarings emanating from the depths of the keyboard, after which the self-satisfied squawkings and crowings of the Hens and Cocks and the madcap scamperings of Wild Asses up and down the keyboard cleared the way for the Tortoises’ Can-can, here beautifully and poignantly realised in slow motion! Only the Elephant was slightly disappointing – I wanted rather more pachydermic weight and girth in the music-making, and greater irony of contrast between the beast’s tender serenade and its portentous gait!

The Kangaroos were lovably quixotic, as were the Persons with Long Ears, while the Cuckoo in the Woods worked its magic. While I thought both the Aquarium and the Aviary could have done with a lighter and more impressionistic touch from both players, I thought Pianists was simply a star turn, the players amusingly coming to grief with their pedagogic scale exercises, depicting in no uncertain terms the servitude exacted by the desire for technical keyboard excellence and the musical aridity that results. Great stuff!

Fossils, which immediately followed, seemed to have unfortunately caught a couple of gremlins from Pianists, sounding a tad unco-ordinated and uncertain in places; though amends were made by The Swan, here limpid and gorgeous, and beautifully laid out for the players’ hands, the piece’s rather Lisztian conclusion pure poetry. It all made the perfect foil for the work’s Grand Finale, both players back on their game and producing an uproariously clangorous and swirling affair, a “curtain call” of the dramatis bestiae featuring lightning characterisations, loads of musical exuberance and great feats of finger-dexterity – all most vertiginously and hair-raisingly satisfying – bravo!

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