Fort Worth — The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth ended its season on Saturday afternoon in the same spectacular manner that has marked all their concerts since Gary Levinson took over as artistic director. Audiences have grown from half-filled halls to nearly sold out venues. Such was the case on Saturday when the audience filled the coolly elegant interior of the Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum.
Even though CMSFW usually fills the seats, this concert had the extra draw of an appearance by the Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan, a controversial contestant in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
His disappointing ranking was not because of his playing, which was universally acknowledged to be astounding. In fact, he won the Raymond E. Buck Jury Discretionary Award. His failure to make the medal round might have been due to an extra-musical circumstance: he constantly made weird faces and appeared to be muttering in some private language while he played. The fact that a video camera projected a close up of his face on a large screen that hung from the top of the stage made it all the worse.
One area of chamber music that is often ignored these days is the music written for piano four hands: that is two pianists at the same piano. Deljavan was joined by the Dallas-based virtuoso pianist Baya Kakouberi for a performance of a standard of the four-hand repertoire: Schubert’s entrancing Fantasy in F Minor.
Incidentally, there is another genre of piano chamber music that uses multiple pianos. The most common configuration is music for two pianists at separate pianos. Two sisters, Katia and Marielle Labèque, made an entire career out on such music, including some concerti from a wide range of composers from Mozart to Poulenc. There are pieces for multiple pianos. Most famously, Stravinsky used an ensemble of four pianos and percussion as an orchestra for his secular cantata/opera Les noces.
The Schubert piece is truly gorgeous and its popularity is understandable from the first notes. This striking and beautiful opening melody runs through the entire work. It is constructed in two halves. In the first half, a gentle fanfare starts each phrase but the second half is like one of Schubert’s soaring songs. Schubert takes full advantage of the fanfare motive as well as the melody throughout the piece.
In Deljavan’s playing of the opening melody, the piano forsook its heritage as a percussion instrument and sang Schubert’s lyrical melody as though it was a wind instrument. The entire performance lived up to its remarkable beginning. The two pianists were of one mind about everything from nuance and dynamics to using deliberate tempi for passages that are usually rushed.
Schumann’s Sonata in A Minor for violin and piano followed with artistic director Gary Levinson joining Deljavan. Cellist Andrés Díaz joined the two artists for the second half of the program, which featured Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major.
In both of these selections, Deljavan was the perfect collaborative pianist. He was constantly in touch with Levinson, glancing over at him at every opportunity. As far as dynamics, Deljavan knew when he was in the background and when he needed to step forward. Even in the most forceful moments, he never covered either the violin or the more soft-spoken cello.
Many in the audience wished that Deljavan played something by himself, preferably something that displayed his awesome technique. However, Levinson’s point was to bring him here as a collaborative pianist, a category that didn’t exist a few decades ago. Back then, they were called “accompanists.” But this term hardly fit the job when playing a sonata or other chamber music. Composers write sonatas for two equal voices and both the solo and piano parts are equally challenging.
Deljavan is an excellent soloist, as he proved a while ago when he played a memorable performance of Rachmaninoff’s popular Piano Concerto No. 2. My review is here. But inserting some big virtuosic piano pieced in a program such as this one would have distracted us from admiring his skill as a collaborative pianist.
In spite of all of the excellent playing all afternoon, the takeaway moment from the entire concert was his sensitive and simple statement of the start of the Schubert Fantasy.
Moment of Geek: In the era before recordings, not to mention the arrival of YouTube, students learned the great symphonic repertoire by playing piano four hands arrangements. Conducting students still use this configuration to learn how to conduct. Even after the arrival of recordings, even today, many pianists greatly enjoyed playing music originally for four hands, or the four hand arrangements of most symphonic masterpieces. Besides, it is a way to explore tempi and its effects.
There is a story about Mozart that is widely circulated, but probably is urban legend. Like most musicians today, Mozart added to his meager royalty or commission funds by teaching students. It is said that the only way a young lady could be left alone with the raffish Mozart was if they were playing four-hand music. As long as the chaperone heard the piano music in the other room, they reasoned, Mozart had to mind his manners. Reportedly, in the manuscripts he used for such occasions, he purposely left out some music for his left hand, leaving it free to explore the nether regions that shared the bench with him. So, the music continued as always. The absent chaperone, unable to hear that one hand was missing, was certain that there was no hanky-panky going on in the other room.
True or not, it is a wonderful story and it fits what we known about the mischievous fun-loving composer.