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Amazing Witkowski Piano Duo at Hotchkiss

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Apr 6th, 2019

Gisele and Fabio Witkowski

Fabio and Gisele Witkowski performed a duo-piano concert at Elfers Hall this past Saturday evening. This dynamic duo has been two sparking jewels at Hotchkiss School for the past 16 years. This concert was in honor of Annette, Hotchkiss music instructor from 1984 to 2000. Mis Hunt attended with animated smile.

They opened on two Fazioli 308 Grand Pianos with Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor, D. 940, a late work published in 1829, four months after his death at thirty-one in November of 1828. The notably famous opening melody haunts the whole work with variations and in recapitulation opens the fourth movement, concluding this tempestuous work with the broken dissonance of longing for a young Countess pupil whom Schubert appears to have fallen in love with. The vacillating shifts between major and minor chords, the oblique sense of dotted rhythms, and sudden shower-like trills bestow an unusual emotional power resembles an elemental force of nature. The lighter-toned Fazioli pianos even highlighted the levitating, emotional angst. The Beethoven-like fugue in the fourth movement sounded like an unearthly wonder at the fingers of Fabio and Gisele, both of whose hands were a blur the eye could not follow. But that passion was there singing from both hands in a simultaneous ecstasy of unity.

The polytonal harmonies of Scaramouche, Op. 165b by Darius Milhaud followed. What a fun piece! Opening tunes cascade like waterfall steps upon each other in this comic tour-de-force. The delightful surprise of the second movement offers a sprightly blues lullaby. And what to say about the concluding Brazileira being played by two Brazilian pianists in their element as each “wrong note effect” pounded out with clarity and contrast? This was a party showpiece to let the audience know that the party had only just really begun.

Then it was on to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos. This delightful and brooding meditation was written shortly after Rachmaninoff had a nervous breakdown after visiting his “god” Tolstoy in Moscow who dismissed Rachmaninoff with the curt blow of “Tell me, does anybody need music like that?” after Rachmaninoff played some of his own compositions for the Great Sage. It seems as if six hands are at work in this piece. I thought that the lighter tone of the Fazioli pianos were weak in the base line, especially the first movement waltz, and that a Steinway (on which the piece was written) might have more successful. The actual performance here by both players was quite amazing. The Faziolis were certainly up to the Romantic lyric peaks as well as the ecstasy of the crescendo before the mad-cap Sicilian Tarantella, which may have been referencing Henrick Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House (1879). The powerful rhythms of both pianists made those Faziolis sing like I’ve never heard before.

Witold Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini was the only surviving piano piece of over two hundred that survived the burning of Warsaw during the failed uprising by Poles at the end of the war. Four-and-half years of music compositions went up in flames, yet Lutoslawski went on to become one the most important and innovative composers of the twentieth century. The alternation of harmonic and melodic material offered a bizarre Manichean clarity: Lisztian neo-classicism as against Bartokian atonal experiments, as if each of the alternating twelve months of a year labored in an exercise of diffident exploration during a miniature piano concerto that ended with a reverse-engineered cosmic bang instead of a whimper. The audience of the capacity-filled hall was ecstatic.

I have heard the Witkowski’s play separately or together on several occasions, yet this was their Concert of Concerts at a level I imagined would not be possible, yet it was so here, and the faces of both players shone with that joy of having achieved something extraordinary. This was a concert to remember. Fabio and Gisele took three bows and played an encore.