Hsu and Serkin Excel as a Piano Duo but Hungarian Dances Need Need More Paprika

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Bizet, Mozart, Schubert: Julia Hsu and Peter Serkin (piano duet), Oxford Piano Festival. Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford 6.8.2016. (CR)

Brahms: from Chorale Preludes Op. 122 (arr. Peter Serkin): Herzlich tut mich erfreuen; Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele; Herzlich tut mich verlangen; Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen; O Welt, ich muss dich lassen

Bizet: from Jeux d’enfants Op.22: Trompette et tambour (March); Les bulles de savon (Rondino); La toupie (Impromptu)

Mozart: Duo Sonata in B flat major, K358

Schubert: Duo in A minor, D947 ‘Lebensstürme’; Rondo in A major, D951

Brahms: from 21 Hungarian Dances, WoO1: No. 8 in A minor; No. 9 in E minor; No. 11 in D minor; No. 12 in D minor; No. 18 in D major

It was a charming idea to close this year’s Oxford Piano Festival with a recital given by not one pianist, but two, in a sensitively varied programme of compositions for piano duet (one piano, four hands). Peter Serkin (the son of Rudolf Serkin) and Julia Hsu have teamed up for the purpose of exploring such repertoire in their recitals, and their performances here certainly gave every impression of two musicians working to one accord – there were very few moments where their course seemed to diverge.

Serkin and Hsu maintained a steady, introspective control over the selection of five arrangements (by Serkin) from Brahms’s chorale preludes for organ with the result, unsurprisingly, of making them sound like companions to the more famous clutch of late piano works written by the composer at around the same time. The origin of the preludes as works for organ was maintained here by the sonorous bass line brought out by Serkin, mimicking the tone of an organ’s pedals, but in a few pieces the chorale melody came out with greater clarity than it normally would on an organ – particularly the ornamented melody in the well-known Advent prelude ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’. Brahms must have had his own mortality in mind when writing ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’, but there was no hint of self-pity in the vociferous and generally confident performance by Serkin and Hsu here.

For the three extracts from Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants they brought a quiet, witty contrast. The march of ‘Trompette et tambour’ was stealthy and furtive, the irony correctly realised. The little rolling clusters of notes under Hsu’s hands flitting around the upper half of the piano’s range successfully depicted the glistening soap suds of ‘Les bulles de savon’, whilst there was a brisk, abrupt conclusion for La toupie (The Spinning Top), sounding more deliberate than the impromptu as Bizet describes it.

The pianists took on board the more substantial fare of Mozart’s duet Sonata in B flat straight away with the stately unison opening of the first movement. From there, however, the performance struggled to break forth into a true Mozartian easefulness and simplicity. Instead it was a little held back and precious, the tell-tale signs of which were that the Adagio did not quite sustain a sense of seamless momentum and the staccato chords which arrest that sounded clipped and unexpected; and the Molto presto finale remained earthbound, missing the joie de vivre that marks Mozart’s music at its most carefree (particularly at such a tempo).

Serkin and Hsu’s equipoise and thoughtful manner fared far better in the two Schubert pieces offered here, both of which were written during the feverish rush of activity in the composer’s last year. They modulated the tone and dynamic of their playing artfully between the sharply contrasted moods of the Duo (vividly entitled some years after Schubert’s death ‘Lebensstürme’ – ‘Storms of Life’) whilst they maintained the relaxed, resigned character of the Rondo in A without disturbance or effort.

Bringing the concert full circle with Brahms, but with a very different aspect of his output, was an imaginative stroke. It was a disappointment that in their performance of five of the Hungarian Dances (which it is often forgotten were originally composed for piano duet) Serkin and Hsu did not let their hair down more, or introduce a spicier dash of paprika into these somewhat serious, sober accounts. There was an attempt to impel the reading of No. 8 with more boisterous gestures in the middle section, but they felt artificially emphasised; and the items in D minor, Nos. 11 and 12, felt rather too deliberate rather than spontaneous, particularly the latter with its Schubertian melodiousness.

Steadiness and authority were a hallmark of the performers’ encore, Kurtág’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, which was slow and solemn, even mystical, with the melody rightly coming out in the high range by Hsu with an entrancing timbre like the mutation stop of an organ. That was a fitting conclusion to the recital, characterised by dependable, considerate performances, which served some of the pieces better than others.

Curtis Rogers

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