star soloist: Martha Argerich.
Raucous to Lugubrious
Chamber Music Festival
Arts Center, Aug. 19
The complex rhythms of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and
Percussion are the tip of the iceberg with this piece. Written
in 1937, it’s a high-spirited blend of Hungarian rhythms and
innovative percussive textures, built more around musical
cells than melodies.
Pianists Martha Argerich and Alexander Gurning (who would
appear the following evening with the Philadelphia Orchestra)
gave a slam-bang performance of this underperformed work in
the Spa Little Theatre as part of the Chamber Music Festival,
reminding us again that pianos are percussion instruments
and that pairing the pair of pianos with kettle-drums, xylophone,
side-drums, cymbals, bass drum, tam tam and triangle allows
a richness of impulse- driven sound.
Philadelphians Don Liuzzi (tympani) and Angela Zator Nelson
(percussion) worked the battery, great fun to watch as they
raced from one instrument to another or, as often was required
of Liuzzi, played a tympani section and then whirled around
the play a snare with the other ends of his sticks.
The first movement is appropriately raucous, more about rhythm
than melody, but still constructed carefully enough to conclude
with a satisfying finish. The surprisingly mysterious second
movement featured the recurrence of a brief, brittle theme,
and busy piano work for the two players. The piece galloped
toward its finish with a more straightforward Bartókian whirl,
taking an abrupt turn toward softness again for a gentle conclusion.
This was one of the high points of the season—a chance to
see such amazing players in a piece not usually thought of
as summer-concert fare.
Rachmaninoff’s Trio Élégiaque in G Minor opened the
program, a one- movement work bursting with lugubrious passion
(the movement is marked lento lugubre). Written when
the composer was a 19-year-old student, it is greatly influenced
by Rachmaninoff’s teacher, Tchaikovsky, with an opening theme
reminiscent of the latter’s Trio in A Minor.
Pianist Gurning had more than his share of the work here,
with virtuoso runs and arpeggios throughout the work. Violinist
Chantal Juillet and cellist Lloyd Smith added their warm tones
to the mix, sensitive to such nuance as the intensity of the
muted finish of the piece.
Gurning returned to play two of Ravel’s Miroirs for
solo piano: the pastoral Oiseaux tristes, and the lively
Alborada del gracioso, the latter best known in its
orchestral version but here, in its original, clearly a signature
piece for Gurning’s virtuosity.
As a concert closer, Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 seemed
a little anticlimactic, especially with Bartók’s sonata still
ringing in the ears. This quartet is one of the pieces mined
for themes for the musical Kismet, and the Notturno
(the third movement) has many lush, familiar moments.
Long, sinewy themes weave through scrunchy harmonies that
invariably emerge even more sunny than before.
Played by the Wister Quartet, an ensemble drawn from Philadelphia
Orchestra members, it was an accomplished performance that
never caught the fire from which even as gentle a composer
as Borodin can benefit. The players certainly displayed the
needed technical skill, however, and left behind a very happy
Wit, German Efficiency and Russian Power
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Arts Center, Aug. 20
Although Martha Argerich was the star soloist the audience
came to cheer, her protégé Alexander Gurning quietly earned
his own share of the plaudits—although he’s only quiet in
onstage demeanor. As a pianist, he proved it in the Poulenc
Concerto for Two Pianos, just as he proved it the evening
before in a two-piano sonata by Bartók.
Where the Bartók is ponderous, the Poulenc is fun—which may
be the reason we don’t hear more of Poulenc’s easily accessible
music on concert programs. There’s something suspicious (at
least to prior generations of classical music tastemakers)
about a 20th-century composer who puts too much merriment
in his work, so Poulenc’s high degree of wit and craftsmanship
tend to get short-shrift. But there was no such attitude here.
The concerto had an excellent partnership in Argerich and
Gurning and the orchestra and Dutoit, with the orchestra’s
percussion section proving especially deft at teasing and
hammering out the many effects effectively paired with the
Why two pianos? The voice of the instrument is amplified,
allowing a thicker orchestral texture. And there’s an extra
degree of tension as the dialogue between the pianos shifts
Needless to say, every virtuoso requirement of the piece was
well satisfied by the players, who also seemed to be having
Mozart’s Haffner Symphony proved a rousing concert
opener. Dutoit respected the brisk tempos the piece calls
for and the Philadelphians had no trouble playing wickedly
fast and absolutely in sync. A large orchestral force held
forth, harkening to the glory days when Reiner or Leinsdorf
led a work like this, and the phrasing was properly operatic
without falling into too-fussy shaping (too often, of late,
we limp through the opening bars with a thousand changes of
Poulenc’s concerto has enough of a neo-classical feel to make
it a logical Mozart follower, and its native French characteristics
bridged it nicely to the Ravel concerto that Argerich played
to start the concert’s second half.
Ravel visited the United States in 1928 and fell in love with
the jazz he heard from the Paul Whiteman orchestra—heaping
praise on the orchestra’s then-star hot cornet player, Bix
Beiderbecke. Just as the Whiteman orchestra was more of an
observer rather than an innovator of jazz, so too does Ravel’s
G-Major concerto reflect a Blue Note-influenced view. It’s
a jaunty, infectious piece with one of the loveliest slow
movements in the piano concerto repertory, and Argerich was
very much at home in the work—and that slow movement gave
her a conversation with the English horn that was mesmerizingly
Like Ravel, Stravinsky was a jazz fan, although his Firebird
ballet dates from a period when he was exploring Russian folk
music. The 1919 suite he derived from the piece was a stirring
end to this concert, and Dutoit was in his element as the
work shifted from the overpowering to the sublimely lovely,
including a gorgeous bassoon solo in the berceuse.
Although the piece transfers well from the ballet to the orchestral
stage, it’s impossible to hear without at least wanting to
dance. Unfortunately, the rest of the audience was just as
restrained as I was—until they leaped to their feet at the