Four hands on a piano may be perfect; may be too many

Note-Worthy April 10, 2014 0 Comments

by Michael Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted the fourth in its series of “Five Fridays: Concerts for Community” on March 28. The performers were duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro. The duo is part of Astral Artists, which provides nearly all of the musicians who perform as part of St. Paul’s “Five Fridays.”

The pair’s program featured Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann,” their own arrangement for piano-four hands of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Mendelssohn’s “Allegro Brilliant” and Rachmaninoff’s “Six Pieces for Piano-Four Hands.” The last piece has a special meaning for me because Rachmaninoff premiered the work with his teacher, Alexander Siloti, who also taught one of my teachers, Leon Tumarkin.

The Brahms is based on one of the last themes Schumann composed, while he was an inmate in an insane asylum and only shortly before he committed suicide. If not necessarily the finest melody he ever penned, as he told Brahms on several occasions, it’s certainly one of the loveliest. It’s a masterpiece not just of development but of structure as well. Varshavski and Shapiro played it beautifully, highlighting the principal motif while surrounding it with carefully modulated counterpoint.

Varshavski and Shapiro gave a stunning rendition of the Rachmaninoff, highlighting the composer’s unique voice of emotional melancholy and timbral brilliance. I was not as taken by their version for one piano played by two pianists of “An American in Paris.” Jamming those four hands onto one piano produced a thickness of texture that not only obliterated the inner lines and muffled the pulsating rhythms, but it also turned this most scintillating of Gershwin scores into a rather tedious repetition of one or two themes.

JOINT CONCERT

Three of Philadelphia’s oldest churches joined forces Sunday, March 30, for a musical celebration of “Laetare” (Rejoice) Sunday in Lent. The concert took place at Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Society Hill, and involved the musical establishments of the host parish as well as its two neighboring Episcopal churches, Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church. Chestnut Hill tenor William Lin was among the singers. The event was a potent example of the power of music to achieve ecumenism despite centuries of separation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

The afternoon concert was a long-time “dream come true” of Normand Gouin, Old St. Joseph’s director of music ministries and a local liturgical composer of note. Substantial contributions to the music making were made by Peter Hopkins of St. Peter’s Church, who conducted many of the choral pieces, and Christ Church’s Parker Kitterman, who played Old St. Joseph’s historic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. The instrument was originally built for the now-closed St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Germantown, and then donated to Old St. Joseph’s by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

The combined choirs of all three parishes, numbering nearly 60, sang Latin Gregorian chant from the “Graduale Romanum,” choral pieces by Nestor, Ireland and Byrd, a lovely arrangement of the traditional Irish song “Be Thou My Vision,” and an exemplary arrangement of the American folk melody “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” by Christ Church’s Kitterman.

BRITTEN SALUTE

Donald Runnicles guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra March 27-29 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The program’s first half featured music composed by Benjamin Britten, the Englishman who is being remembered this season on the centenary of his birth. Runnicles and the Philadelphians played the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s opera, “Peter Grimes,” and his Violin Concerto with Janine Jansen as the brilliant and sensitive soloist.

“Peter Grimes” is not only Britten’s masterpiece; it’s one of the operatic masterpieces of the entire 20th century. It’s a rare post-Puccini score that has achieved and maintained its secure and honored place in the standard repertoire. A searing work of deeply disturbing psychological and emotional drama, its “Four Sea Interludes” aurally set the stage for the narrative that unfolds. In them, Britten displays an impressionistic gift the equal of that of either Debussy or Ravel as well as the sonic scintillation of Respighi. Runnicles elicited splendid playing from the orchestra. The only drawback was the series of inane projections displayed on a screen above the musicians. What a waste of money!

After intermission, Runnicles led the Philadelphians in Arvo Part’s surprisingly dull “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” followed by a marvelous rendition of Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony No. 36 in C major.

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