Saturday, 19 October 2013

TWO PIANOS AND TWO CELLOS RECITAL / The Joy of Music Festival 2013 / Review

Thursday (17 October 2013)


This was the highlight of this year’s The Joy of Music Festival, and true to form, it did not disappoint. Italian pianist Giuseppe Andaloro, the third 1st Prizewinner of the Hong Kong International Piano Festival (2011), was making his name as a conductor, composer and arranger, built around a steady career of concertising. This was to be a culmination of all these facets, his own transcription for two pianos and two cellos of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Rite of Spring. The original idea was mooted and experimented in concert several years ago, even before his competition win, but after several revisions, this was to the World Premiere of the masterpiece. Hong Kong was to be the lucky beneficiary.

A century after its riotous Paris premiere, the Rite remains a source of fear and trepidation among audiences in Singapore and perhaps also Hong Kong. That might explain the relatively small audience that greeted this concert. Its sheer iconoclasm, violent dissonance and narrative savagery do not sit well with those more accustomed to the prettiness of Mozart or the lush gushings of Rachmaninov. According to Andaloro’s notes, he did not follow Stravinsky’s own bare-bones four-hand arrangement, but instead went back to the orchestral score to craft his transcription, with the intention of making it sound more orchestral. With all the musical details retained, his conception was a tour de force, not just of instrumental virtuosity and sonic projection, but one of originality and love of the music.

Fellow Sicilian Giovanni Sollima’s cello was given the honour of playing the opening bassoon solo. Immediately one realised why the cello was cast into this role. Its sheer range, from guttural plaint in the high registers to low pitched groans and percussive effects, made it a suitable partner for Andaloro’s first piano. Now multiply this by two with Monika Leskovar’s cello and add Ilya Rashkovskiy on second piano, we have a virtual orchestra. Just suspend expectations of a full orchestra, as this arrangement is becomes a new piece on its own terms. The pianos merge into the canvas with quiet chords and do not dominate until the rhythmic huffings and puffings of the Dance of the Adolescents.

The pianos and cellos do not get stuck in their expected (and pre-conceived) roles in this score. Both groups of instruments take their turn in providing melody (or fragments thereof) and rhythmic percussion, and they alternate roles totally seamlessly. Soon one does not actually miss the orchestra, but is taken on a miraculous journey of sound and colour. Given the multitudes of notes encountered, one was not surprised at the physicality and movement demanded of the performers, but that did not include the amazing sight of Sollima abandoning his cello and rushing off to Andaloro’s side to be his third hand! While pounding the bottom A note with his right hand, he swept the bass strings of the piano with a percussionist’s brush. Although the scraping metallic effect did not quite come off, the theatricality of it all was a most appropriate response.   

Although The Sacrifice (Part Two of the Rite) did not employ a similar trick as The Adoration of the Earth, the shock value of the sound continued unabated. The virgin’s dance to the death was built up inexorably, and at its final leap into the abyss, all four performers were firing on all cylinders. If the Chopin Society of Hong Kong were to issue this World Premiere as a CD recording, an accompanying DVD would be imperative. Not only was it visually exciting, the visceral responses that came with experiencing the live act fully deserves to be relived.

Jinsang Lee at the lighting control console
(Photo by courtesy of Jiwon Kang)

Interestingly, there was also a light design element to this performance. Nothing elaborate but it involved changes to the onstage illumination which varied according to the music being played. The controller was one who obviously knew the music and sequences in the ballet, and it came as no big surprise that was Jinsang Lee (above), last night’s pianist.  

If one thought the second half was to be more conventional, one was mistaken. Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for two pianos was already well-known. In fact it was the only work played in its original form this evening. Andaloro and Rashkovskiy gave it a good workout, revelling in its playful dissonances, unexpected harmonies and rhythmic quirks. More revealing was Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Fawn, scored for two cellos by Sollima. In many ways, it scores above the two piano version, not least because the dreamy harp arpeggios are well brought out, in this case Leskovar reciprocating Sollima’s “flute” solo with much affection. Again, melody and accompaniment changed hands frequently, and the give and take between both players so well integrated to be inseparable.

The final work of the programme was Ravel’s La Valse, arranged by Andaloro for the foursome. Here he retained Ravel’s original score but the addition of cellos gave the work a different complexion. In order for the cellos’ lilt to be better appreciated, tempos built up rather gradually. One criticism of the piano version is that the work climaxed too soon, but not so here. The heartache of Viennese society heading towards destruction in this fatal whirling was not plunged headlong but rather caught on a slippery slope. After all it was some stretch of years from 1855 to 1914. A civilisation does not always implode overnight but often slides into its doom while its members gaze on helplessly. Similarly, this performance was one where the audience was slowly but surely drawn into an inescapable vortex, from which no escape is possible.

The tumultuous final bars were greeted with a storm of applause. What could come after this exhausting outing where La Valse seemed like the perfect mirror image of The Rite of Spring? The foursome reprised the last minute of The Adoration of the Earth, which more than whetted the appetite for the next performance of this masterpiece.   


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