Schumann's Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Op. 12, is a set of short descriptive works for piano, each of which is based on a short story by E.T.A Hoffmann, and they were all listed, but in German. A sentence about the nature of each one would have been best but even offering a translation of the titles would have helped those new to the piece. Stravinsky's ballet, Petrushka, played in the composer's arrangement for two pianists at one piano, had the scenes listed but not a word about what happens on stage. The music describing the adventures and trials of the puppet Petrushka is amazingly well written to fit the action. Just listing the sections, without a sentence or two about what is going on, is not helpful in following the action, since there isn't a clear break everywhere.
Both Bax and Chung are graduates of SMU and still have a relationship as faculty. They are both in the early stages of a major career and, as we learned at great length, have won some major competitions and played with many top level orchestras. They tour as a piano duo, in addition to their solo careers. Piano four hands recitals are relatively rare but are enjoyable experiences. There is a lot of fine literature written for the combination. Most composers have written something and others, like Mozart, have written a lot. We hardly ever get to hear it.
In the days before recordings, playing piano four hands arrangements were the way you got to hear the big symphonies in between rare orchestral performances. It was also a delightful way to spend an evening in the pre-TV era and still is among some pianists – professional and amateur.
Chung played the first half of the program. She delivered a highly colored performance of the Schumann pieces. Many of these have a singing melody that floats over an accompaniment and she displayed her ability to do this in the first movement, Der Abends (“In the evening”). Here we meet one of the two opposing characters in this musical drama – Eusebius, the dreamer. In the next, Aufschwung (Upswing, meaning soaring), we meet his opposite Florestan, who indulges in his wild desires. Chung took this tempo at the composer's word Sehr Rrasch (Very rapidly) and then some. The next piece Warum? (“Why?”) is questioning the both of them about their characters. The next-to-last Traumes Wirren ("Dream's Confusions") is the highlight of the work and, once again, Chung took the tempo marking Äußerst lebhaft (Extremely lively) and pushed it to its limits.
Overall, this was a sensitive performance that displayed technical mastery and musicianship. There was a lot of detail in every piece and some beautifully rendered nuances that showed originality.
She ended with two études by György Ligeti from Book II. All of his etudes are challenging in the extreme. Even the quiet non-virtuoso ones are hard to pull off. Chung chose one from Column A and one from Column B – one reflective and the other a blizzard of notes. En Suspens (“In Suspense”) allowed Chung to demonstrate her mastery over complex rhythm with its overlays of six and four patterns. But that is merely a warmup for the rhythmic overlays in Der Zauberlehrling (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), which traverses the keyboard from end to end with as many as seven different rhythmic layers going on at once. While such complexity is impossible to hear, Chung did an excellent job of bringing out as much as possible.
Bax joined her for the second half. Stravinsky's ballet is a wondrous creation. In his 1936 biography he says “In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.”
The original 1911 version was written for a gigantic orchestra. In 1947, he sightly revised it to drop some of the instruments (two flutes instead of four), but it was still for large forces. He created a piano four hands version for rehearsals and presumably (lacking program notes), this is what Bax/Chung played – diabolical cascades of arpeggios and all. The two pianists delivered a fine performance with much of the wit and energy of the original ballet intact. The four large divisions, or tableaux, are subdivided into many different dances, some of which (such as “The Magic Trick”) subdivide again. All of this was impossible to follow unless you were intimately familiar with the music. Certainly, much of the carefully thought out detail in their performance was unobserved by the audience.
The program ended with two tangos by the Tango King, Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla. He revolutionized the tango into something new, called appropriately, Nuevo Tango. He was also a virtuoso bandoneon player.
Moment of Geek:
This is an instrument that is part of the concertina family, which only has buttons, as opposed to the accordions with their sideways piano-like keyboard. To further complicate the matter the buttons, designed for harmony, have a dual function, one on the squeeze in and other on the expansion out (much Ike a harmonica). Thus, becoming a virtuoso on this instrument requires not just a melodic gift, but a harmonic one has well. His superb compositions combine the elements of tango mixed with jazz and classical music. He was, after all, one of the students of perhaps the most famous composition teacher ever, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris.
All of that background helps you understand the nature of the music, which is harmonic as much as melodic. These arrangements by the two pianists perfectly captured the atmosphere of the tango. Bereft of the characteristic bandoneon, the pianists incorporated various grace notes and slides up and down the piano to create the same effect. The two tangos they offered, Milonga del Angel and Libertango, were greatly appreciated by the audience.
They also played up the husband/wife romanticism of the tango with the interplay of their hands. At one point, Chung leaned against the keyboard while Bax embraced her playing with one hand on either side. There was also quite a lot more of interplay between them in these pieces.
More piano four hands concerts, please?