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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Concert Review: Hirsch-Pinkas Duo

Sunday afternoon should be reserved for listening to live chamber music.

This afternoon I attended a Faculty Artist Recital at the Longy School of Music Edward Pickman Concert Hall in Cambridge. The featured performers were the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo.

The Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo is comprised of two of the best well-known pianists in the Boston-area: Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas. I've followed both of their solo careers closely since the 1980s, but it is only since about 1995 that they have teamed up to perform together as an ensemble. They also happen to be husband and wife.

It turns out that there is more than enough two-piano (and four-hand/one-piano) literature to keep them busy. Not only is the repertory rich with music written originally for their instrument(s), but plenty of transcriptions made from other pieces are abundant. In addition, the Duo actively seeks out new works to record or perform both locally and on their numerous world tours.

The concert earlier today included a nice selection of pieces by Edvard Grieg, Robert Schumann, Alexander Tcherepnin, Nathan Davis, and Aaron Copland.

The work by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was a four-hand arrangement in 1976 by the German composer Adof Ruthardt (1888-1892) of five selections of Grieg's popular Incidental Music for Peer Gynt. It's a familiar work that we have all heard in an orchestral version. In fact, two orchestral suites exist: Opus 46, and Opus 55.

It was interesting to observe the detail and clarity of articulation that Hersh and Pinkas summoned from their grand piano in the Peer Gynt selections. They were very careful to match and coordinate every small and subtle detail of their articulation, particularly when one or more melodic lines shifted between them. As a listener, I could clearly comprehend the unity and coherence of their combined musical expression and thought process as performers. They were clearly on the same page, and in a manner that is not only precise, but extremely musical in character.

The acoustic of Pickman Hall is rather good, and the Steinway pianos at the Longy School of Music sound superb. It was almost obligatory to hear their playing as orchestral in the Grieg (and later in the Copland). It made me realize that the piano is more than an autonomous stand-alone instrument, but can also function as a surrogate for other combinations of instruments too. For example, composers often do their work at the piano while thinking about other instruments. It's not uncommon for them to imagine actual piano sonorities as strings, winds, or percussion. Thus the piano can function as a musical chameleon, assuming different tone colors depending on the performers' ability to express them, and the listeners' imaginative capacity to hear them.

Tone color does play a major role in music, and the orchestra is a unique beast in this regard. For the most part, Ruthardt's transcriptions of the Grieg were a sensitive and faithful rendering of the original orchestral score, but with one possible exception: the second movement (Aase's Death Op. 46, No.2). When it's played on the piano keyboard the music does not seem to resonate with enough color variation to sustain the slow and contemplative musical discourse. Unfortunately, the pondering suspended block chords of this movement as played on the piano can only die out. In the orchestral version Grieg surely had more options available in his pallet to "colorize" his musical statement.

The second work on the program was Bilder aus Osten, Six Impromptus for Piano four-hands, Op. 66 by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Schumann composed this set in Dresden as a surprise Christmas present for his wife Clara in 1848. It's a mature work by the composer and full of wonderfully complex 19th-century tunes and harmony. It's piano music at its' best. You could detect a mutual admiration for this piece in the confident and cozy performance by this couple. It was intellectual, yet warm and fuzzy.

After the Intermission, the Hirsch-Pinkas Duo focused on music from the 20th and 21st centuries (as they often do). First, we were treated with an energetic Rondo in D Major (Op 87a) by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977). Just as we may hear the piano in transcription as a proxy for the orchestra, so too are we inclined to hear native piano music as potential material to be orchestrated. Such is the case with this piece. The pounding rhythmic nature of this two-piano work implies an application of colorful orchestration. After hearing them play it, I read in the program notes that Tcherepnin did in fact transcribe his spirited Rondo for orchestra. It became the fourth movement of his Suite Op 87.

Tcherepnin's Rondo reminded me at times of Stravinsky's famous ballet Petrushka (which also exists in a piano version) - but without all of the "dissonance." It was nearly a neo-classic work, exploiting the D-Major scale, but also mixing in other coloristic tonal and quasi-tonal materials as well. As I listened to this short and peppy piece for the first time, I wondered if it was really composed by a Russian. The music is rather joyous, happy, and unabashedly optimistic - not exactly what you'd expect from a Russian.

Perhaps the explanation is that Tcherepnin composed the Rondo during his American period. He had long left his St. Petersburg home where his father Nikolai was a prominate composer. As a "White Russian" he moved from place to place with his family - first to Tbilisi and then to Paris, also spending some years in China and Japan. I recall learning about Alexander Tcherepnin as a child from piano books when I was growing up. His easy piano pieces (such as the "Happy Stowaway" and "Mic and Mac") along with simple piano works by other Russians (such as Kabalevsky and Prokofiev) were amount the stables of my initial introduction to modern music. Somewhere in my archives I keep a worn and faded newspaper clipping of Alexander Tcherepnin's 1977 obituary from the NY Times.

It's difficult for me not to associate Alexander with his son, Ivan Tcherepnin whom I had made acquaintances with before his untimely death in 1998. Ivan was a composer who taught at Harvard and who specialized (along with his brother Serge) in analog electronic music synthesis- a speciality that was all of the rage in the early 1970s. I've heard that the distinguished Tcherepnin composer dynasty continues on even today.

Following the Rondo in D Major, the Hersch-Pinkas Duo returned to the stage to present the Boston Premiere of a new work by Nathan Davis (b. 1980). The World Premiere had occurred earlier this week when the Duo performed at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover NH.

Davis' piece, Passacaglia, was composed in 2009. Davis grew up in New Hampshire, but currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin ("with his wife and their two cats"), but he has a strong connection with the Boston-area. Davis obtained several degrees from Brandeis University in music and mathematics. At Brandeis he studied piano with Evan Hirsch and music composition with Marty Boykan, David Rakowski and Ross Bauer (to name a few). Davis went on to obtain his PhD in music composition at UC Davis. He has written his own software for electronic music synthesis and composition, and is founder and owner of his own securities trading firm based in New York City. [readers should note that there is another (but unrelated) composer-percussionist based in NYC with the same name].

Davis' Passacaglia is on first impression a very strong piece. It's carefully written for piano four-hands with both the vertical and linear aspects of pianistic sound production in mind. We hear the chromatically rising "ostinato" very clearly at the onset of the work, and can follow how the composer deduces the variations that flow on logically from it. The short work is thematically convincing, resonates resoundingly, and appears to be constructed with a rock-solid methodology. I was impressed.

I was not surprised to read in Davis' bio that he had worked extensively in the field of electronic music, since one section of his Passacaglia reminded me of an acoustical phenomenon known as "Shepard's Tones." Electronically produced Shepard's Tones create the audio illusion of constantly rising pitches - as in a never ending spiral of sound. One section of the Passacaglia gave me this impression.

While there was an embryonic inkling and a subtle hint of impending fast melodic finger work in Passacaglia, it never got to a point where that idea erupted into a fast frenzy of musical hyper-activity. I was expecting lift-off, but was equally satisfied with a safe, sound, and uneventful flight.

Billy the Kid is one of those pieces of music destined to become an American classic - if it isn't already one. It's best known today in its' 1940 concert suite edition which Aaron Copland extracted from this acclaimed ballet. The first performance of the work took place on October 6, 1938 by Ballet Caravan in Chicago in Copland's original conception of the work for two pianos. That's the version that the Hersch-Pinkas Duo performed on Sunday.

However, the more familiar version of Billy the Kid for full orchestra (completed in 1939 by Copland) is what we are inclined to imagine in our heads as we listen to the two-piano score. Copland definitely thought for orchestra, and had most certainly intended to orchestrate his work from the onset. However, in its initial version, Copland is careful to write pianistically. Hirsch and Pinkas made note of this in their program notes.

The distribution of material between the two instruments takes advantage not only of their antiphonality, but the fact that there are two distinct performers. The pianos sometimes share portions of the same texture, but at other times operate on quite independent planes.

We heard six excerpts from Copland's ballet, beginning with "The Open Prairie" and ending with "The Open Prairie Again." One has to marvel at Copland's ability to keep it both simple and interesting. He spaces triads in unusual ways, and is able to manipulate his notes to create an almost cinematic vision. His cowboy and Mexican music verges on stereotypical, but his overriding skill as a composer makes the journey worthwhile.

As the concert concluded with Copland's American cowboy music (followed by an encore), I couldn't help but think that this Cambridge audience was both happy and satisfied. I think they may have been hungry too, and inspired by the Americana may have ventured over to Redbones in Cambridge for a late lunch or early supper of down-home Texas BBQ with beans, coleslaw, and dirty rice. Yum.


Artists' website

Naxos press release about Circles of Fire by George Rochberg:

Listen to Circles of Fire:

About Shepard Tones:

About Redbones BBQ: