Bargemusic’s four-hand piano concert offers pleasing post-holiday sorbet

Sat Nov 29, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Amid the slim post-Thanksgiving concert offerings, and the pervasive January-level chill in New York, a warm and enjoyable bit of shelter for the body and soul was found Friday night at Bargemusic, in a performance of piano music for four hands, played by Rafal Lewandowski and Alexander Peskanov.

The casual holiday atmosphere of this Masterworks Series concert was enhanced by the format; two players sitting side by side, sharing the keyboard, implicitly project a feeling of intimacy and collegiality. While that did not always serve all the music to the last degree, the experience was of musicians playing for friends and acquaintances, a welcome change from the usual artificial formality of classical concerts.

Lewandowski and Peskanov began the evening with Mozart’s magnificent Fantasia in F minor, K. 608, music with multiple and complex distinctions: it is both a masterpiece and an historical curiosity, once highly influential and now little-known to contemporary audiences.

Created in the last year of his life, the composition was a commercial endeavor; it was meant for the mechanical organ, an instrument played much like a music box, and one that was once common in upper class European homes. The results were popular enough for the publisher to make a four-hand arrangement for concert performances (there is an early review from the September, 1799 Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung), and fine enough to exert an influence on Beethoven, Schubert, and other 19th century composers.

The music makes an immediate and powerful impression. In simple ABA form, it begins with a dramatic fanfare that could easily be a reduction of one of Mozart’s opera overtures, then segues to a fugue. That alone is impressive music, impeccably crafted out a subject that is both insistent and stately, but it is then followed by a slow, lyrical section that is the epitome of Mozart’s chromatic invention and cantabile style.

Though this was not the best performance—Lewandowski, sitting at the right side on the keyboard, marked the notes with little sense of legato or linear flow—the work is such a concentrated masterpiece that it speaks for itself through all formats and levels of playing.

The pianists were much more at home in the music that followed, Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands. The jaunty playing expressed Poulenc’s witty urbanity, the pianists punchy, clearly articulated attacks werfe ideal for the Stravinskyisms of the Prelude, and the astringent lyricism of the middle, Rustique section.

There were two world premieres on the program, coming just before and just after intermission, Alicia Jonas’ Concert Paraphrase on Albinoni’s “Adagio” in G minor and Byron Adams’ Tritico.

The original homophonic melody that is the foundation for Jonas’ piece is one of the most famous in and outside of classical music, collected in maudlin arrangements on “Music for Study” and “Music for Relaxation” recordings. Jonas’ simple and effective concept is to set the tune with a dry understatement, then gradually apply increasing amounts of dissonance to it. Stripping the music down reveals its inherent beauty, and her composing gives the original a light impasto, like the fading colors and cracks on the surface of a Renaissance painting. The pianists played the music with care and relish.

Byron Adams’ premiere also makes something new out of the past. His original composition has the immediate sense of being a contemporary reaction to Rossini. The three formal movements—Alla Marcia, Cavatina, and Tarantella—name-check their roots, and Adams’ finely made melodies have a vocalized quality. He colors the mostly triadic harmonies with extended notes that puts a contemporary stamp on the piece. The lively performance matched the pleasure of the music.

The concert concluded with most of Shostakovich’s Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 6, and four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. Peskanov explained that after making the program, he realized that Shostakovich’s piece was for two pianos, not just for two players, and so had to arrange it for the concert. They musicians played three of the four movements; Prelude, Nocturne and Fantastic Dance.

The music is not mature Shostakovich, with much of the technique but not all the taste. The piece combines repeating cross-patterns and stretches of melody and harmony in effective ways, but the expression is sentimental and stolid, without the satiric bite or empathy of his later music. Lewandowski and Peskanov relished the sonic and dramatic power in the music, their playing made the music more interesting than it has a right to be.

To close, the pianists played numbers 1, 2, 6 and 8 of Dvorak’s vivacious Op. 46 set. The extroverted brilliance of their playing seemed to reveal that this was what they had been waiting all evening to get to. Meat and potatoes satisfaction all the way, as Lewandoski’s and Peskanov’s assured, agile phrasing of the music’s complex rhythms expressed the earthy, physical delights of the dances with unqualified success.

The Bargemusic Masterworks Series continues 8 p.m. Saturday. The Amphion Quartet and pianist Adam Golka will perform music of Barber, Dvorak and Brahms.

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