Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Anderson & Roe Launch CMSF Summer Series

Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe (courtesy of Chamber Music San Francisco)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) launched its Summer Series, a mini-series of three concerts, all of which will be presented this month. The opening recital was given by the Anderson & Roe Piano Duo, whose members, Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, presented an engaging repertoire of music for both two pianos and four hands on a single keyboard. The first half of the program was devoted to the more serious selections, while the second half served up the more diverting offerings.

Almost all of the program consisted of arrangements, most of which were joint efforts by the two pianists. However, the first half featured two works, both of which were composed for two pianos. The more familiar of these was Maurice Ravel’s own arrangement of the original orchestral version of his “choreographic poem” (which is what he called it), “La Valse.” The other was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 5, the first of his two four-movement suites for two pianos.

Considering that “La Valse” was one of Ravel’s most imaginative uses of orchestral resources, one might think that a two-piano version would not rise to the same heights. However, those who have encountered Igor Stravinsky’s four-hand version (for either one or two pianos) of his score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring” probably know that the attack properties of a piano can bring sharper clarity to individual notes, even when they are embedded in the thickest of textures. Ravel probably knew about that version; and it may well be that his piano arrangement of “La Valse” was intended for those serious listeners who wanted to know what was really going on behind all those dark clouds that Ravel had concocted through his instrumental techniques.

Last night’s performance thus served up a far starker account of what those dark clouds concealed. One could more readily imagine a large chamber in Vienna filled with ballroom dancers. However, since the ball was being held shortly after the conclusion of World War I, any of those dancers who had not lost one or more limbs were suffering from severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (known in those days as “shell shock”). Furthermore, the chamber itself was barely a shell in the bombed-out remains of what had been a playroom for Hapsburg elites.

Under the four hands of Anderson & Roe, every one of Ravel’s phrases carried its own sinister qualities. Every effort to revive the nostalgia of a three-beat rhythm is prematurely interrupted and blown away by a sinister wind that still bears traces of chlorine gas. If the “poem” itself has a narrative, it is one of nervous breakdown, which is finally achieved in the final measure of a cadence that sounds more like a collapse.

Far more upbeat was the Rachmaninoff selection. Opus 5 was originally titled Fantaisie (Tableaux), suggesting (in the composer’s own words) “a series of musical pictures.” Each of the movements was inspired by a different poet (Mikhail Lermontov, Lord Byron, Fyodor Tyutchev and Aleksey Khomyakov); but the musical interpretation has more to do with emotional tone, rather than explicit passages of text.

Opus 5 tends to receive far less attention than the second (Opus 17) suite. Opus 5 was one of the first works that Rachmaninoff completed after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory; and the sense of an emerging effort may account for why it is not performed very often. (Ironically, it was played in Davies Symphony Hall just this past January by Daniil Trifonov and his former teacher Sergei Babayan.)

One can appreciate that Rachmaninoff has yet to find his mature voice, particularly in the first three movements, each of which is so saturated with Lisztian excesses that it feels as if it is going on forever. Nevertheless, the combination of wildly pealing church bells and fragments of Russian Orthodox chant breathe a bit more arresting rhetoric into the final (“Easter”) movement. Rachmaninoff seems to have been clever enough to leave his listeners with his best impressions!

The most unique offering on the program was the opening. “Grand Scherzo” was an innovative four-hand arrangement of music from the Finale to the first act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 opera Così fan tutte. Purists might chafe at this, pointing out how many first-rate pieces Mozart wrote for both four hands on one keyboard and two pianos. (They would also note that nothing in this piece really counts for being a scherzo.)

Nevertheless, particularly for those familiar with the opera, this turned out to be a delightful recap of the rich and full extent of hysterical action that concludes this work’s first act. Vocal colors may have been lacking; but remember that Mozart himself prepared instrumental versions of “greatest hits” from his operas. He was in it for popular appeal, so nobody dast blame Anderson & Roe for going for the same brass ring. They came up with a splendid way to seize and hold audience attention from the very first gesture.

Things got much more relaxed during the second half. Arrangements of three pieces by Astor Piazzolla were played on a single keyboard. However, they involved a fair amount of activity away from the keyboard (particularly within the body of the instrument), as well as some elaborate patterns of arm-crossing. The arrangement of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, often published as “Mélodie,” provided a welcome calm after Piazzolla’s storm. This music was originally written for two flutes and strings, but the Anderson & Roe arrangement had no trouble capturing its serene qualities.

The program concluded with a wild and wooly fantasy based on Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Curiously, the Anderson & Roe version opened with the “Danse bohémienne” from another Bizet opera, La jolie fille de Perth (the fair made of Perth); but, hey, gypsies are gypsies, right? Given how saturated the repertoire is with versions Carmen selections for just about any instrumentation (Anyone remember The Naked Carmen? My guess is that John Corigliano would prefer to forget it!), adding another version might be taken as little more than chutzpah. However, this version also had more than a bit of activity away from the keyboard and was definitely diverting, if not absorbing.

Stage activity also surfaced during the encore selections. Their version of “America” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story managed to take both four-hand and two-piano playing into account. Paul McCarney’s “Let It Be,” on the other hand, served up some of the best give-and-take playing across the two pianos. I would like to believe that both Anderson and Roe brought some personal improvisations to their account, since their approach to playing that song certainly encouraged such practices.

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