Wednesday, April 12, 2017

San Francisco Performances will Present a Rare Two-Piano Recital

One might describe the forthcoming third concert in the Piano Series prepared by San Francisco Performances (SFP) for the current season as a “two for the price of one” affair. The program will offer two of the most distinguished pianists in the current concert scene, the Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes and the Canadian Marc-André Hamelin. Furthermore, each of them will have his own piano, making this one of those rare occasions for experiencing music composed for four hands distributed across two pianos, rather than on a single keyboard. Both pianists will be familiar to those who have attended past SFP events. Andsnes will be making his tenth appearance, while this will be the twelfth such occasion for Hamelin.

The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to a performance of the music that Igor Stravinsky composed for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” While this music is well known for its highly imaginative approach to instrumentation (which many on opening night found provocative from the very beginning with its high-register bassoon solo), it is less well-known that Stravinsky initially composed the score at the keyboard. It was in that version that the music was first presented to Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, founder and director of the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky knew that he had written too much for two-hands; so he prepared a score for four hands on one keyboard. That was the version presented to Nijinsky and Diaghilev, and the second pianist was none other than Claude Debussy.

The four-hand version was also the first published edition of the score, appearing in 1913, the year of the ballet’s premiere performance. The full orchestral score would not be published until 1921. Those who have been following piano recitals for some time may recall that ZOFO, the four-hands-on-one-keyboard duet of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann, played this 1913 publication at their first public concert, given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in October of 2009. The piece was also included on their debut album, Mind Meld: Works for One Piano, Two Hands, which was released in April of 2012. At the very least, this version gives a clearer sense of how Stravinsky had intended to separate foreground from background than can be found in the full orchestral score.

Nevertheless, sticklers for fidelity have no trouble pointing out elements of Stravinsky’s polyphony that are missing in the four-hand version. As a result, there have been efforts to account for more of the notes, so to speak, by rescoring the four-hand version into an arrangement for two pianos. Presumably, this is the version that Andsnes and Hamelin will perform. No information has yet been provided as to the source of the arrangement. However, anyone browsing YouTube will discover two-piano performances based on an arrangement by Vyacheslav Gryaznov; but, according to his Web site, he has not yet published that arrangement.

Stravinsky will also be represented in the first half of this program, this time with a work that was explicitly composed for two pianos. This was the first piece that Stravinsky composed after having become a French citizen in 1934, and he completed it on November 9, 1935. Ironically, he gave the piece an Italian title “Concerto per due pianoforti soli” (concerto for two solo pianos). He wrote it to play with his son Soulima. The piece is often singled out as representative of Stravinsky’s neoclassical approach; and the last movement consists of a prelude followed by a four-voice fugue. On the other hand what makes Stravinsky’s approach to classicism “neo” can be found in the third movement, a set of four variations whose theme is never stated!

Stravinsky’s concerto will be followed by Claude Debussy’s set of three pieces for two pianos, which he called simply “En blanc et noir” (in white and black). The coupling is appropriate, since the last of these pieces was dedicated to Stravinsky. For its time this music was almost as notorious as “The Rite of Spring,” composed about two years earlier, had been. Camille Saint-Saëns had attended the first performance of “En blanc et noir” and referred to the three pieces as “atrocities” that “should be put next to the cubist pictures.” These days we would probably take that declaration as high praise!

The program will begin with another composition that is the result of ex post facto arrangement. A coupling of a Larghetto and an Allegro movement in E-flat major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart never found its way into Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog; and the manuscript exists only in fragments. However, Maximillian Stadler prepared a performing edition of this music in 1796, five years after Mozart’s death, at the request of Mozart’s widow Constanze. Recent Mozart scholarship has led to subsequent performing editions, one by Robert Levin and another by Paul Badura-Skoda. Andsnes and Hamelin will be present the Badura-Skoda version.

This program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 25. Like all Piano Series performances, it will be held in Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Single tickets are being sold for $85, $65, and $50. They may be purchased in advance through a City Box Office event page. This Web page shows a seating plan with information about prices and availability in the different sections.

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