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The star soloist: Martha Argerich.

From Raucous to Lugubrious
By B.A. Nilsson

Saratoga Chamber Music Festival
Saratoga Performing 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 audience.

French Wit, German Efficiency and Russian Power

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Saratoga Performing 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 pianos.

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 and grows.

Needless to say, every virtuoso requirement of the piece was well satisfied by the players, who also seemed to be having great fun.

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 tempo).

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 beautiful.

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 finish.

—B.A. Nilsson

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