A Happy Marriage of Old and New from Polonsky and Weiss

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Hartke, Shumann, Mendelssohn: Anna Polonsky & Orion Weiss (piano duo), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 23.10.2016. (BJ)

Mozart – Piano Sonata in F major for Four Hands K.497
Hartke – Piano Sonata for Four Hands (Philadelphia premiere)
Schumann – Bilder aus Osten Op. 66
Mendelssohn – Andante and Allegro Brillante Op.92

If there really is an art (to rejig Duncan’s maxim about the mind and the face in Macbeth) to find a couple’s construction in its deportment on stage, then Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss’s marriage must certainly be a very happy one. There was a gracefully relaxed conviviality about their visual as well as musical interaction in this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital, which naturally translated itself into equally relaxed communication with their audience.

Opening their program with Mozart’s F-major Sonata for piano duet, they fashioned a performance that responded equally well to the lithe vigor of the fast movements and the meditative lyricism of the central Andante. The latter, interestingly, is based on a theme almost identical in outline to that of the corresponding movement of the composer’s Fourth Horn Concerto, which was written in the same period.

The work may not be quite as towering a masterpiece as the D-major sonata that Mozart wrote for two pianos, but it ranks not very far behind in classical poise and beguiling invention. I welcomed the boldness of the duo’s playing—though never harsh in tone, it had none of that walking-on-eggshells daintiness which used to be regarded in some quarters as constituting good Mozart style. The eloquence and clarity of the whole effect was so delightful that, being a greedy person, I would also have welcomed more generosity in the matter of observing the composer’s repeat marks.

Stephen Hartke was born in 1952 in Orange, New Jersey, and became head of the Oberlin Conservatory’s composition department last hear. I found his Sonata for four hands a thoroughly enjoyable piece. It is predominantly tonal and unfailingly approachable music—not a million miles, perhaps, from Stravinsky in its rhythmic inventiveness, but full of Hartke’s own personality, expertly written for the duet medium, and cogently designed in its overall three-movement form.

Weiss and Polonsky—alternated possession of the upper register through the evening, and this was one of Weiss’s turns at the top of the keyboard—played it with obvious commitment and impeccable ensemble. They were no less convincing after intermission in the romantic musings of Schumann’s Bilder aus Osten, a characteristic set of six impromptus that I was glad to be hearing for the first time. The juxtaposition of Schumann with Mendelssohn served to set in perspective the more classical bent of the latter’s style. His Allegro Brillante may not be exactly top-drawer Mendelssohn, but it’s a thrill a minute, and the performers dashed it off with breathtaking if never breathless virtuosity. To send us home happy, we were treated to an encore, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in A flat major, which in the context of this program sounded deceptively Schumannesque.

Bernard Jacobson

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