REVIEW: Adès and Gerstein Scintillate With Two Pianos
MARCH 13, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Thomas Adès, one of today's highest profile composers, premiered his new piano concerto recently in Boston, and next week will bring the work to Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and as soloist, rising star pianist Kirill Gerstein. But to break up the monotony, the pair found diversion playing music for two pianos in a scintillating concert in Zankel Hall on Wednesday night.
The two pianists (and rest assured, Mr. Adès is as confident playing the piano as he is as composer) seemed to be having a lark of a time, and their choice of repertoire was delicious. The program was anchored by famous works for the idiom by Debussy and Ravel, and fleshed out with some quality showpieces and curiosities.
Debussy's 1915 suite for two pianos En blanc et noir, much like the Violin Sonata Anne-Sophie Mutter played the previous night in the large hall, was composed as World War I was affecting life in Paris. Further, it followed a bout of writers' block, and the onset of cancer. It seems to have the air of a manifesto -- a maverick composer's definitive testament. Debussy's elder, Camille Saint-Saëns, condemned the work's "atrocities," comparing it to "cubist pictures." But there's the rub: Debussy was doing something genuinely new.
In the hands of Adès and Gerstein, this is musical pointillism -- textural harmonies, ironies, suspended ambiguities. After all, Stravinsky -- the dedicatee of the third movement -- had already premiered The Rite of Spring. The composers were having a dialogue. Stravinsky would go on to turn many corners as a composer, and there are innovations of expression in En blanc et noir that Stravinsky would explore soon enough.
The next piece, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, as transcribed for two pianos by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich, is both a curiosity and a revelation. You might think, "how can you do the Symphony of Psalms justice without instruments or voices that sustain long tones?"
But Gerstein and Adès found in Shostakovich's arrangement something newly evident in Stravinsky's neoclassical, liturgy-like piece: the germ of what would come to be known as minimalism. Rendered by two pianos, the first movement seems to take a cue from Debussy. I wonder if Stravinsky invented something: his fabric of repeating patterns and modal harmonies are woven together into a textile of sound. Debussy begets Stravinsky begets....Terry Riley's In C?
The second movement's Bach-like fugue works especially well for two pianos, and the pianists conspire successfully. The finale, where the chorus’s absence is most likely felt, works just grandly, especially with players like these two who really know how to make the piece sing.
Witold Lutosławski Variations on a Theme of Paganini from 1941 is pure spectacle. Composers from Brahms to Rachmaninov to Andrew Lloyd Webber have fashioned works manipulating the theme from Paganini's violin Caprice No. 24. Polish avant-garde composer Lutosławski writes difficult music, but it really pays off. These dueling pianists attacked the score with the aplomb of virtuosos. It was kindling in their fingers, and built to an inferno.
The second half of the program returned to Debussy, with Lindaraja, a piece of exoticism dating from 1901. It's a trip to the Iberian peninsula in the imagination. Adès and Gerstein projected the sinuous, slithery melodies through the seductive habanera rhythm. Adés then indulged us in a dramatic Concert Paraphrase of Powder Her Face for Two Pianos, which will surely take hold as a new addition to the genre. His score for Powder Her Face has birthed an orchestral suite, and both of these works make entertaining use of the jazzy, tuneful score for this chamber opera from 1995. Adès likes to recycle his opera scores for other mediums, understandably getting more bang for his buck; there is a Concert Paraphrase for solo piano, recorded on his album Adès: Anthology.
Maurice Ravel’s La valse was a rousing finale. One of Ravel's most engaging inventions, he described it as "the apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which is mingled in my mind the idea of the fantastic whirl of destiny.” The composer's own highly demanding version for two pianos is a favorite piece in the repertoire, and Gerstein and Adès dispatched it with ease and finesse.
The two pianists traded positions throughout the evening, alternating between first and second piano. It undoubtedly takes a brilliant pianist to complement Adès’s strong musical imagination. Gerstein more than fits the bill.