The third concert in the Piano Series prepared by San Francisco Performances, (SFP) presented last night in Herbst Theatre, promised to be one of the high points of the season. Two of the most distinguished pianists in the current concert scene, both familiar to those who have attended SFP events, joined forces to present a program of music composed for four hands distributed across two keyboards. The pianists were the Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, making his tenth SFP appearance and Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, making his twelfth. Furthermore, both had previously appeared not only as a soloist but also in chamber music settings. Both have experience in accompanying a soloist and in playing in larger ensembles, particularly those involving two, three, or four string players.
The program prepared for the occasion was just as promising. Igor Stravinsky was the main contributor, with the second half being devoted entirely to his music for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” The first half, in turn, presented the concerto for two pianos that Stravinsky wrote between 1934 and 1935 to play with his son Soulima. Even the two encore selections of the evening, “Madrid” and “Circus Polka,” were Stravinsky selections. Stravinsky’s presence was complemented by that of Claude Debussy’s “En blanc et noir” (in black and white). The Stravinsky-Debussy connection was particularly apposite, since Debussy had been Stravinsky’s partner when the “Rite of Spring” score was first performed for Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev in the composer’s draft version for four hands on a single keyboard. The program also included a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart so rare that it never appeared in Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog.
Sadly, none of this ever managed to gel with the immediacy and intimacy one expects from a chamber music experience. One problem may have been physical separation. The pianists had to face each other across a distance slightly longer than the length of a concert grand. This distance is far greater than that between a pianist and the string players in a trio, quartet, or quintet. The result was a sense that each pianist was more occupied in the challenges of his own part than with arriving at a whole that would be greater than the sum of its parts. To be fair, the technical challenges last night were legion; but there was too much of a sense that each challenge was conquered by hammering it out with vigorous determination.
As might be guessed, Mozart’s music suffered the most from such treatment, particularly when one considers that the pianos themselves were far too large for the sort of music being played. Curiously, the music that fared best was the Debussy score. The Debussy canon for solo music is not only prolific but, when considered in its entirety, impressively diverse. Debussy also composed for both four hands on one keyboard and two pianos. He devoted more attention to the former genre, whose best known result would probably be his Petite Suite.
However, in “En blanc et noir” he was clearly going for a more powerful sound, almost as if his goal had been to achieve the strength of an orchestra through keyboard technique. The result was a panorama of broad strokes that would probably surprise anyone whose knowledge of Debussy’s rhetoric was restricted to his solo piano music. Both Andsnes and Hamelin were not shy in rendering those bold strokes, thus presenting a new viewpoint of Debussy’s character that emerged as a perfectly valid extension of his single-keyboard music.
Each of the Stravinsky selections, one the other hand, was problematic in its own way. The fact is that the four-hand account of “The Rite of Spring” that Stravinsky and Debussy introduced by Nijinsky and Diaghilev was a highly effective distillation of the full score (which Stravinsky created by orchestrating the four-hand version). As was clear when the ZOFO duo of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann played this version at their first public concert, given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there was an element of transparency that would fog up once Stravinsky began to pile on the instruments. Last night’s performance, on the other hand, while capturing much of the violently raw energy of the orchestral version, never made a convincing case for the music at the heart of all that raging.
Where the concerto was concerned, at least the issue of having the right resources for the right music was properly resolved. What was missing, however, was any recognition that Stravinsky might have approached this music with more than a little wit. If he wrote it to play with his son, then it would be nice to believe that some kind of “bonding” was at least a secondary objective. There is a playfulness that can be found in each of this concerto’s four movements that suggests that Stravinsky approached this score as a vehicle for father-and-son intimacy, even if he had no other such resource at his disposal.
Sadly, neither that intimacy nor the use of wit as a vehicle for it was evident last night. The performance was all about mastering the technical challenges. However, what obtained had more to do with beating those challenges into submission than meeting them on their own terms. That sort of wit only emerged in the encore selections, each of which involved Stravinsky poking fun at one or more other composers. In the case of the first encore, “Madrid,” the composer was Emmanuel Chabrier and the music was his “España” rhapsody. Ironically, Chabrier had composed a two-piano transcription of his orchestral score. Stravinsky decided to do him one better, composing “Madrid” for pianola; and Soulima later prepared a two-piano transcription.
“Circus Polka,” on the other hand, began as a piano solo. It was written for choreographer George Balanchine, when Balanchine received a request from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to create a ballet for fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas. David Raksin then arranged the score for organ and concert band. Stravinsky subsequently prepared his own orchestral version, and Victor Babin arranged the score for two pianos. The score is best known for an outrageous treatment of the first of Franz Schubert’s D. 733 three “Marches militaires” in D major; but there is also an unmistakable jab at Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 (fourth) symphony in F minor. These were the sorts of high spirits that could have gone a long way towards endowing the two-piano concerto with the rhetoric it deserved.