Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sunset Presents “Viennese-French Axis” Program

Pianists Arianna Körting and Robin Giesbrecht (from their Sunset Music and Arts event page)

Last night at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Sunset Music and Arts presented the second four-hand piano recital in this season’s Instrumental series. The performers, Arianna Körting and Robin Giesbrecht call themselves the A&R Duo, which not only honors their respective initials but also offers a sly nod to the “artists and repertoire” division in both the recording and the music publishing business. The program was conceived to complement two Viennese composers, Carl Czerny and Franz Schubert, with two French composers, Camille Saint-Saëns and Claude Debussy.

The first half of the program offered the more familiar repertoire. Schubert’s D. 940 fantasia in F minor was the opening selection, followed by the four-hand arrangement (probably by Ernest Guiraud) of Saint-Saëns’ Opus 40 orchestral tone poem “Danse macabre.” Schubert composed extensively for four-hand keyboard music. D. 940 is probably his best known achievement in that genre, perhaps because, while it is highly demanding, ambitious amateurs can still muster a credible account. (I make this claim out of personal experience.) What makes the music particularly appealing is its widely diverse approaches to polyphony that unfold within what is basically a “classical” four-movement (played without interruptions) structure.

A&R brought a personal chemistry to their performances through which the intricacy of that polyphony was never short-changed. The overall rhetoric is dark (although not necessarily as morbid as Giesbrecht suggested in his introductory remarks). However, through Schubert’s prodigious inventiveness, that darkness reveals itself in a wide variety of distinctive shades. A&R clearly appreciated the scope of those distinctions, bringing forth an account that disclosed the many details of Schubert’s fabric without neglecting an overall sense of how the entire journey progresses.

One might think that the “Danse macabre” arrangement would short-change all the diversity of Saint-Saëns’ orchestral coloration. However, the thematic material originated in an earlier song that he composed for a poem by Henri Cazalis. Thus, Guiraud’s “reduction” actually goes back to the composer’s original vision, so to speak.

Nevertheless, this music is so popular that most listeners will be reminded of the orchestral version, rather than the seldom-performed song. The risk, however, is that a four-hand performance will have more to do with triggering memories, rather than drawing attention to the duo pianists. Thus, while the A&R account was “true to the text;” the arrangement could not really rise to a level of standing on its own merits.

The second half of the program was far more diverse in its content. It began with Debussy’s 1889 Petite Suite. Structurally, this music combines reflections on earlier structural forms with tone-poem-like imagery derived from the titles of the four movements. A&R clearly understood how to honor both sides of this coin. Like Saint-Saëns’ Opus 40, this is music that tends to get more attention in the orchestral version prepared by Henri Büsser. However, Debussy clearly knew what he was doing in conceived this music for a four-hand setting; and, regardless of instrumental coloration, there is a transparency in his original score that Büsser never quite managed to capture.

Czerny was the Viennese counterpart for the second half of the program. He is best known as a key pivotal figure of the nineteenth century. Having been a pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven, Czerny had no trouble making a successful career as a teacher. His best-known pupil was Franz Liszt.

Alas, Czerny-the-composer never rose to the heights of Czerny-the-teacher. Last night A&R performed his Opus 10 C minor sonata, described as a “Brilliant Grand Sonata.” Since the piece was completed in 1822, one wonders how Beethoven would have reacted to the hypertrophied rhetorical excesses of this four-movement sonata. On the other hand the sonata serves as a bellwether for the flock of excesses that would later flow from Liszt’s pen. While there is no questioning A&R’s talent in rising to the many technical challenges of Czerny’s Opus 10, there was little to persuade the listener that the journey was more than a tedious slog.

Fortunately, the evening ended on a more refreshing note. The encore selection was the fourth of Johannes Brahms Hungarian dance settings in the composer’s original four-hand version. This music was all about high spirits, leaving all listeners gratefully refreshed after the Czerny ordeal.

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