Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Four Hands Take a Journey Through the Ages

The Vieness Piano Duo in the Mason Home concert-room.


Vieness Piano Duo, Mason Home Concerts

So far as I can remember this was the first domestic house recital I’ve attended in 55 years of concert-going—a terrible omission (and admission!). However, it certainly won’t be the last. There’s no space, nor indeed need, to describe here the way in which LA composer and filmmaker Todd Mason remodeled part of his Mar Vista home into a music-room for an audience of around 50 to enjoy chamber and piano recitals, as in a recent interview with artist and musician Linda Wehrli on her splendid Pastimes for a Lifetime blog page he talks in detail about it. (His project was also the subject of an earlier feature on USC Thornton School of Music’s website.)

What must be said, however, is just how outstandingly successful were the design decisions made by Mr. Mason in collaboration with his architect, acoustician, and contractor. The sound of the Vieness Piano Duo—husband-and-wife team Vijay Venkatesh and Eva Schaumkell—on the carefully chosen Yamaha C7 with German hammers in the “finely tuned room within a room” ranged from crystalline treble to rock-solid but resolutely unboomy bass, and if the necessarily close proximity rather negated the sense of distance in quiet music felt in a concert hall, then fortissimo passages had a visceral power quite beyond normal experience.

Alongside the very considerable musical value, the intimate informality inevitable with the warm and welcoming atmosphere of such a small-scale venue, and Mr. Mason’s lavish hospitality, with hors d’oeuvres before the concert and more substantial hot refreshments after—and all for a suggested donation of $25 per person—made the whole event into a memorable evening.

Dr. Brown-Montesano with
impromptu visual aid.
In her pre-concert talk, Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano homed in on the vital domestic role in the pre-recordings era of piano four-hands arrangements of orchestral music, as well as briefly surveying the medium’s original repertoire as compared to that for piano duet (i.e. two-piano works)—as well as triumphantly overcoming some visual presentation hiccups!

So to the music itself: the Vieness Piano Duo’s “Journey Through the Ages” began in 1713 with a fluid but non-lingering account of Sheep May Safely Graze from J. S. Bach’s "Hunting" Cantata BWV 208, in a mid-20th century four-hands arrangement by the American composer and pianist Mary Howe (1882-1964); this they followed up with Mozart’s Sonata in C major K. 521 from three-quarters of a century on, the last of the five he wrote for the four-hands medium.

Mozart in 1789: silverpoint
drawing by Doris Stock.
The acoustic clarity made Mozart’s witty interplay between the two pianists—particularly in the Allegro first movement (exposition repeat omitted)—a joy, and it was not surprising to hear Ms. Schaumkell remark in conversation with Mr. Mason later that this of all the works played presented the most challenges. The central Andante was quite fleet, the fastish tempo bringing real urgency to its minor-key central section, while the Allegretto finale, in rondo form, bounded along with ebullient insouciance.

Two Hungarian Dances from Book One of Brahms’ first set, published in 1869, followed—No. 1 in G minor and No. 5 in F-sharp minor—and it was good to be reminded by these joyous performances that piano four-hands was the original form for these much-transcribed works. So far, so stimulating and enjoyable, but no real emotional depths plumbed. With the final work in the first half, however, all that changed.

Schubert's death mask.
It is impossible to exaggerate the scale and significance of Schubert’s achievement in his final years, and of all the masterpieces he produced in what Benjamin Britten called the “richest and most productive 18 months in our music history,” the Fantasia for Piano Four-Hands in F minor, Op. 103, D.940, completed in March 1828, is as profound as any and arguably the most original.

No Schubertian “heavenly lengths” here: the composer packs into the Fantasia's 18 minutes or thereabouts as much variety in texture, pace, and dynamic as a multi-movement work three times the length, but all drawn together by recurrences of the opening theme, a melody so hauntingly unearthly that those recurrences have a tidal inevitability.

The Fantasia is often described as being in four movements, though it is an indivisible whole due to their interconnectedness. In the “first movement” the varied recurrences of that opening theme are repeatedly punctuated by an angrier mood, which entirely takes over when the music cadences into the Largo “second movement”: here the effect of Schubert’s rage, projected by these fine performers at full force in the small concert-room, had a gut-punching ferocity, only to be exceeded by the torrential final pages of the “fourth movement”, which collapse into a coda as uncompromisingly bleak as any in music. The total effect of this great masterpiece was simply to scour the soul.

The Vieness Piano Duo—Vijay Venkatesh and Eva Schaumkell—with Todd Mason.
After a break for recovery, refreshment and conversation, the second half opened with three movements from Samuel Barber’s 1953 Souvenirs Op. 28. This work rivals Stravinsky’s Pulcinella for resourceful recycling, though not in the same order: with Souvenirs the orchestral ballet version came later, as did solo piano and two-piano reworkings. This, for four hands, was the original, and I was only sorry that there wasn’t room for all six movements of the piece.

Samuel Barber.
Barber was as subtle a craftsman as Poulenc, and Souvenirs is a gem of polished wit. Shorn of the high-stepping Waltz and pawky Schottische that precede it, the dreamy Pas de Deux third movement sounded a little unmotivated, and the contrast of its haunting arcs with the scurrying Two-Step that follows was also a loss. The athleticism with which the Vieness Piano Duo imbued the splashily "wrong-note" Hesitation–Tango and Galop that end Souvenirs only made the omission of movements 1, 2, and 4 the more regrettable; another time, perhaps?

Todd Mason’s concerts also form a showcase for his own works; unsurprisingly, his Midnight at Prague Castle, composed last year for the Vieness Duo, was the most recent piece on the program. Its generally slow pace and restrained dynamic, with widely spaced chords covering the keyboard’s full range, all proceeding from and imbued by the opening motif of a falling 5th, conveyed well the sense of the vast and ancient structure, quietly overlooking the city at night.

Prague Castle at night.
Some of it reminded me a little of The Old Castle movement in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, though not the rapidly ascending and descending runs of 16th notes and 32nd notes in the latter part of the piece, which perhaps reflect the elaborate decoration to parts of the building’s exterior which Mr. Mason noted in his introductory comments.

Finally came two four-hands arrangements that formed a real change of pace—first a relatively restrained version of Gershwin’s The Man I Love from 1924, and then a swirlingly elaborate version by Khatia Buniatishvili of Piazzolla’s 1974 Libertango that seemed to contain far more notes than I had ever heard in the piece before!

With additional improvisations by themselves, the Vieness Duo projected it with as much verve as if they’d only just started to play, rather than being at the end of a long recital… and even then this wasn’t the final note as they returned for a brief encore, a more alert than usual account of the first movement Berceuse (1893) from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite Op. 56.

Four more concerts remain in the not-to-be-missed 2020 Mason House series—a varied and tempting line-up of genres, periods, and instrumental resources, performed by some of LA’s finest musicians. Full details are at the website.


Mason Home Concert: 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, 6.00pm, Saturday, January 18, 2020.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert: Goethezeitportal; Barber: Music Sales; Prague Castle: Raffael Herrmann.

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