Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concert Series 2022 presents:
Duo Enharmonics – Nicole Chao and Beth Chen (piano duo)
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART – Piano Sonata in D, K.381 (`1772)
FELIX MENDELSSOHN – Andante & Allegro Brilliante Op.92 (1841)
JOHN PSATHAS – Motet (1997)
FAZIL SAY – Night (2017)
HANNA KULENTY – VAN…. (2014)
IGOR STRAVINSKY – The Rite of Spring (1913)
Sunday, 2nd October
A quick look at Middle C on my part brought forth some previous “other” enthusiastic opinions regarding the music-making of Duo Enharmonics, made up of the piano duo of Nicole Chao and Beth Chen (formed in 2017, and whose names are here alphabetically ordered) – to my surprise, I hadn’t actually heard them play before, perhaps confusing my somewhat over-vicarious enjoyment of the reviews of their performances by my colleague Steven Sedley with the “real thing”, and especially in the case of a concert featuring a presentation for four hands of Ravel’s “La Valse”, along with the Mozart Sonata we heard today. (The memory is obviously not what it was…..)
Matters of familiarity with the pair’s playing were put right for me with a vengeance today – I confess the concert’s main drawcard was hearing the Stravinsky work performed on a single piano four-hands! – how, I had asked myself when looking at the concert programme a few days before, could that be possible, or more of anything but academic interest? Of course I should have consulted the Middle C record earlier and been reminded of the duo’s performance of “La Valse” (another piece I would have thought well-nigh impossible to bring off satisfactorily, before reading my colleague’s enthusiastic review….)
By way of preparing for the music’s onslaught in this particular form (of course I’ve known – and gradually gotten to love – the original orchestral “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) ever since my first open-mouthed teenaged encounter with the work on record in the 1960s), I had the bright idea of finding an existing performance for piano duo on You Tube beforehand, simply to get an idea of how it would all translate in pianistic terms. What surprised me on doing so was the extent to which everything suddenly sounded more “harmonic” than I’d ever previously heard, the music’s harmonies, tones and colours actually competing with the piece’s rhythms for my ear’s attentions! It made me look forward all the more to what Chao and Chen would do with this iconic score.
However, there seemed almost another concert’s-worth of other music to be got through beforehand, here! – with each scheduled item having its own intrinsic interest either by association or repute – the one blank I drew was with the name Hanna Kulenty, and upon investigation was suitably mortified to find a catalogue of completed works any composer would be proud to own, thus furthering my education in yet another direction, that of contemporary Polish composition!
Partly because the piano was still in its infancy, there are surprisingly few works for keyboard four- hands from the time before Mozart, the most prominent being a handful of sonatas by Johann Christian Bach, who, of course was the former’s only acknowledged composition teacher. This work, in D Major K.381, dates from the time when Mozart’s regular performing partner was his sister, Nannerl, a child prodigy like her brother, their father touring them around Europe as wunderkind – at that time their chosen instrument was probably still the harpsichord, rather than the newfangled fortepiano (the forerunner of the modern pianoforte).
The duo‘s spirited attack at the Sonata’s beginning soon gives way here to expertly-nuanced dynamic contrast as the music announces its “orchestral” quality of loud/soft and staccato/legato passages. The music has all the character one might expect from such a living, breathing organism, including a telling minor-key shift at one point before the jovial mood reasserts itself, though I liked the way the movement’s end was gracefully, almost enigmatically voiced, rather than merely hammered for brilliances’s sake.
Richly-wrought, beautifully-rounded tones characterise the slow movement’s opening, the gentle dying fall at the exposition’s end “leans” us eagerly into the following sections, markedly highlighting the work of each player, primo and secondo (Chao the former, and Chen the latter, incidentally)…… then the finale’s fanfare-like opening and contrasting exchanges of leading voices make for an almost operatic scenario of “give-and-take” throughout, complete with contrasting trajectories alternated between tumbling triplets and snappy dotted rhythms – such a joy!
From here we leapfrogged into a new century of sentiment and sensibility with the music of another youthful prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn, in the form of his Andante & Allegro Brilliante Op. 92, a piece he wrote to perform with the young Clara Schumann. The piece’s layout strongly reflects, both physically and musically the idea of partnership and harmonious balance, qualities emphasised by both players in their spoken introduction to the work. Strange as it might seem to anybody upon hearing the work’s exquisitely contrasting parts, it was first published with the opening Andante omitted – but fortunately a new age has restored the composer’s original concept of a coming-together of contrasting impulse in friendship.
Chen and Chao straightaway establish a mood of seamless flow of concerted lyricism, beginning with the secondo player alone, and then handing over to the primo as if it all came from a single pianist. The Allegro suddenly and impishly irrupts from the lower registers, spreading its joyful energies over the whole spectrum, the players here combining delicacy with sparkle and brilliance, all the while literally and delightfully playing into one another’s hands – towards the end comes a lonely luftpause, a couple of tentative impulses, and then an explosion of whirlwind elfin energies bringing to us the conclusion.
Came a further shift both forwards in time and here to these shores with John Psathas’s 1997 work Motet – and here we were given the treasurable bonus of not only having the composer present but (unexpectedly for him!) brought to the platform to introduce the work, which he did, presumably to honour the efforts of these, his former students at the School of Music! Psathas held us spellbound as he described both aspects of the work’s character and its actual premiere in this same venue, given by pianists Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons. He also recounted to our merriment the incident of a hapless audience member attempting to noisily extricate a cough lozenge from its plastic wrapping during a quieter sequence in the music, and being silenced by a hissed admonition from Houstoun!
Beth Chen took the primo here, for this remarkable work, a kind of “ritual” in four parts, the music beginning with the duo opening up vast, nebulous vistas, a wandering treble picking its way over bardic-like spread bass chords, the effect almost aleatoric, as if enacting the discovery of a new land. A third voice intones a long-breathed melody, chant-like at first, but gradually becoming more rugged and jagged in effect, the sounds gathering weight and the harmonies clashing acrimoniously – such flavoursome volatility conjured up here! – with the ensuing chaos dissolving into silence.
Twice more the music rises from its own embers, firstly with a chordal theme hoisting a beacon which sparks off a toccata-like irruption from the textures, buoyed by rallying shouts and vigorous scintillations of dancing figures! When this also spectacularly implodes, the musicians again bring their energies to bear on the work’s repeatedly-checked trajectories, which once again revive and begin to pulsate with renewed life as they plunge towards the liberating resolution of a single chord, completing the ritual! – all that’s left at the end is an ambience of wonderment, and a welcome reassurance that life and our world are worth preserving……
Virtuoso Turkish pianist Fazil Say appeared next on the programme as a composer, with his 2017 work Night (commissioned by the Dutch Piano Duo Lucas and Arthur Jusson). Say had previously (2013) gotten into trouble with Turkish authorities over remarks which he had “tweeted” being considered disrespectful to the Islam religion , to the point where he was convicted and given a suspended jail sentence, and his music banned from performance – as a gesture of support the dedicatees of Night actually played the work on tour in Ankera as an encore after it had been officially removed from the original programme. Ostensibly the piece is about contrasting qualities associated with the night and its mysteries, both sinister and enticing, though each of the contrasting moods might well readily lend themselves to subversive interpretation regarding repressions which could be exerted on individuals by an authoritative government.
Say’s piece opens with a shadowy, careering juggernaut-like propulsive character, somewhat reminiscent of the manner of Prokofiev in his earlier piano works, when at his most percussive and relentlessly rhythmic. Chen (primo) and Chao (secondo) build the excitement unerringly and remorselessly until the trajectories break off, and the players transform the ambiences with subtle manipulations of the piano strings inside the lid (evocations of the “alluring siren call” mentioned in the programme note). It’s as much music of “flight” and danger as of mystery and allurement, and its ending packs an almost self-destructing punch!
Polish Composer Hanna Kulenty’s work “VAN…” was next, after the interval. Originally written for a concert during the state visit to Poland by the King and Queen of the Netherlands in 2014, it wasn’t performed on that occasion for whatever reason, and was instead premiered later in the year by the aforementioned Dutch Piano Duo, Lucas and Arthur Jusson. The piece opens gently and spaciously with ascending/descending repeated chords in both the middle and higher registers of the piano, before the secondo player (Chao) abruptly beginning a toccata-like figure, soon taken up by the primo player, both of whom then enact an extended kaleidoscopic exchange of repeated impulses which constantly interact through exchange, reflection and alternation. The harmonies are tonal, and most wonderfully resonate both unto themselves and relative to their progressions, the effect being a kind of perception of a reality that’s constantly made to change, not unlike the effect in some minimalist works I’ve encountered. The players suddenly and abruptly stop the toccata figure upon a held chord, one whose resonant decay poignantly colours the return of the opening chordal figures into and through an amazing silence…..beautifully done…..
I couldn’t help feeling that the concert was become one of two distinct halves at this point, if not weighted quite as I was expecting, thanks to the outstanding musicianship of Beth Chen and Nicole Chao in making the diverse characters of the different works we’d so far heard really come to life – as someone whose prime purpose in attending the concert was to experience the final scheduled item “live” I found myself already replete with musical stimulation, and wondered as well how Chen and Chao would physically and mentally shape up to the Stravinsky work “The RIte of Spring” that we were about to hear, and especially after despatching the first part of the programme so vigorously and convincingly.
As it turned out I had absolutely no cause to worry, though I confess the subsequent effect of both the performance of “The Rite” and its character as a piece of music surprised me, particularly so in the wake of my having heard that other piano duo performance on You Tube. My first impression upon watching the latter was that the piano version for me had radically changed the whole character of the piece from one whose primarily nature was rhythmic to one which at the very least stressed the equal importance of harmony. Having grown up exclusively hearing orchestral versions of the piece, I’ve found, particularly in the more heavily-scored passages, the rhythmic complexities of the music to my ears have dominated and indeed often submerged things like harmony, colour and (in places) actual pitch of notes! For this reason it was like unexpectedly listening to a new work for me, one far less insistent and subjected to a hegemony of percussion and heavy scoring, as in most recordings I’d heard. I made no judgement of either in qualitative or quantitative terms, regarding both versions as equally valid, and especially after having read somewhere that the composer worked concurrently on both a piano and an orchestral score at the time of composition.
My second surprise, however, came at this point in the concert with the incredible playing in the same work of the wonderful Duo Enharmonics pair, which (unlike the You Tube version I’d watched and listened to) bore out the statements made by the programme’s note-writer relating to the piano as a “percussive instrument”, and the “heightened brutality” of the piano version – made, according to the writer, “on an instrument that is capable of becoming a machine”. And all because, unlike the on-line piano version I’d encountered and listened to, Beth Chen and Nicole Chao seemed to literally “take no prisoners” with the work, bringing to its presentation an attack, an edge, a richness of tone, a strength and an energy that for me rivalled many orchestral versions of the ballet I’d heard. I’d actually go so far as to say that, for me, it all seemed at times even a bit too much of a good thing, with Chen and Chao pushing hard in places (such as in some of the detailings of the Introduction to Part One, where more light-and-shade of touch might have afforded some welcome variety; as could have parts of the Ritual of the Rival Tribes, where I found the hammered tones now and then over-insistent).
It might seem as if I’m contradicting myself, here, but I did wonder to what extent Chen and Chao might have made themselves familiar with the work’s orchestral versions, so as to get such sounds as a kind of “reference” in their heads. In fact they may even have thought such a course was unnecessary, given that they were playing the composer’s own piano version with its own tailor-made dynamics. Having said all of this, I must emphasise the fact that I was truly stunned by the Duo’s playing of the work, lost in admiration of what they were actually achieving, however much in places I might have wanted slightly more varied and transparent tones. It’s important to pay proper attention to what is actually done in order to convey as fully as possible one’s appreciation of it all – and therefore to what Duo Enharmonics achieved overall with this concert I take my hat off in sheer admiration and wonderment – “Sacre bleu!”