Two Pianos, Four Pianists—Minus One Major Touch of Mozartean Genius

United StatesUnited States Smetana, Mozart, Bartók: Charles Abramovic, Lydia Artymiw, Cynthia Raim, & Natalie Zhu (pianos), Christopher Deviney & Don Liuzzi (percussion), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 21.11.2016. (BJ)

Smetana – Sonata in E minor for two pianos, eight hands; Rondo in C major for two pianos, eight hands

Mozart – Sonata in D major for two pianos, K448

Bartók – Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

This was a stimulating and cleverly designed program, and it was put on stage by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society with meticulous regard for pecking order among the four pianists involved: Natalie Zhu took the uppermost piano part in the Smetana sonata, Cynthia Raim in the Mozart, Lydia Artymiw in the Smetana rondo, and Charles Abramovic in the Bartók.

They all played with enormous skill, and the program offered abundant satisfactions both familiar and unfamiliar. Among the latter were the two Smetana pieces: the Sonata for eight hands a tautly constructed single movement dating from the composer’s teaching days in Prague, and the Rondo for the same unusual instrumental layout an assemblage of polka tunes, unpretentious and attractive enough but a bit garrulous. (If you want to hear a polka that represents Smetana’s genius in fuller measure, you can find on YouTube one of the late Ivan Moravec’s favorite encore pieces, Memories of Pilsen, which the composer wrote when he was only 19: Moravec found an inexhaustible repository of charm in its mere three-minute duration.)

The Bartók work, though its unusual scoring prevents its being programmed very frequently, is much more of a known quantity. With the virtuoso participation of two principle players from the Philadelphia Orchestra, Christopher Deviney and Don Liuzzi, this performance did full justice to the atmosphere of the music. Redolent of mystery, moments of violence, and much fascinating tone-color, the work is not as great as the composer’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (which we in the trade are in the irreverent habit of referring to as “Muspac”), but its sheer sonic inventiveness outweighs its relatively sectional structure.

Thus far, then, three-quarters of the concert offered varied and unadulterated pleasures. But I found the performance of one of my favorite Mozart works, the Sonata for two pianos, something of a disappointment. I am not denying that the more superficial attractions of the piece, with its coruscating figurations and imaginative interweaving of the two instrumental parts, were brilliantly realized by Cynthia Raim and Lydia Artymiw. There is, however, a touch of supreme genius in the sonata that went for nothing in this interpretation.

If you search through Mozart’s voluminous oeuvre from start to finish, you will find innumerable touches of genius—compelling treatment of harmony, stretches of seemingly effortless contrapuntal ingenuity, evidences of profound artistic and human discernment—but among the many instances of stunning melodic invention you will not find one greater than what happens in the second subject of this sonata’s first movement. When Mozart restates the theme’s eight measures, he reshapes it in a way that seems to take us at one stroke into a new world. It may sound eccentric of me to suggest that changing a B to a C sharp and then changing that C sharp to a D constitutes a heart-stopping thrill, but that is indeed the feeling I get from the restatement, but found no trace of in a performance too unrelievedly devoted to speed and athleticism. (I was reminded of a phrase I read half a century ago in a review by an unnamed critic who characterized the feeling of a technically expert performance of Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto as “ruthless aplomb.”)

It would be rash to suggest that perhaps the players had opted for an excessively rapid tempo for the movement as a whole. It is, after all, marked “Allegro con spirito.” But there is spirit, and then there is spirit, and the spirit that truly delights was absent from this awesomely executed but too pervasively light and precipitous run-through. If you are going to play the movement that fast, you must, surely, relax the pulse a tad at that revelatory moment in the second subject, or it will be fated to fly past without making an impression on any listeners not already aware of its beauty.

I don’t want to end this review of a mostly splendid concert on a negative note, even if Raim and Artymiw missed the boat with their Mozart. But for the rest of the evening, as on many other occasions, they showed themselves to be just as fine musicians as their equally distinguished and gifted colleagues.

Bernard Jacobson

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