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Four Hands on the Mountain

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jul 3rd, 2017

Peter Serkin and Anna Polonsky at Music Mountain

On a gorgeous summer afternoon at Music Mountain near Falls Village, CT, four hands conjured the magic of early classical music as it progressed into Romantic music. Peter Serkin and Anna Polonsky, who have been playing four-hand piano together over the past two years (both teach at Bard College), performed an unusual selection of four-hand pieces opening with two suites by J. S. Bach, BWV 641 and BWV 615, both in G major, c. 1716. Originally written for organ, the first of these pieces delineated an extroverted, vibrantly classical and rather secular sensibility, while the earlier and shorter (“In You is Joy”), more elegant piece expressed a fervent religious sensitivity so personal that it could be considered a Romantic proto-type. I was thunderstruck by its delicate, poignant conclusion.  I had never heard it performed before. Neither of these works had ever been played before at Music Mountain. Serkin is to be commended for this unusual program.

Three early Beethoven waltzes, Op. 45, from 1803 returned to extroverted conviviality depicting fast-paced glee with subtle irony amid symphonic textures that gave the seated an impulse to stand. In a more Romantic vein, an 1868 selection of Johannes Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52a, based upon German folk tunes without lyrics, catapulted the audience into an troubled lake of bare emotion. Written in the popular style of the day, they were an immense success and one can hear why they are still popular. These compositions, depicting the social scene of Viennese courting ritual, secured financial stability for Brahms. Such extroverted romping somewhat disguised the influence of Schubert and Schuman, yet who cares a whit about influences when the music nearly compels one to dance? The subtle, rhythmic variations in the middle number were extraordinary. Vigorous applause concluded this first half amid two bows by the performers.

Yet the best was yet to come. Franz Schubert still remains the master of the four-hand piano genre. Anton Diabelli who published these composition in 1840, twelve years after Schubert’s death, entitled the Allegro in A minor, D. 947, “Storms of Life.” The interweaving of vigorous melodies oscillating against a contemplative serenity offered something startling, perplexing, astonishing.

Andante Varié in B minor, D. 823, c. 1825, plunged into the lonely melancholy that the French love to exaggerate and wallow in—that lover’s remorse after a romance has suddenly fizzled and one is left to wander through manicured parks in bloom while children erupt with the joy of youth and the meaning of life appears to have evaporated like one’s childhood obsessions. Yes, lyrical depression was also an aspect of Romanticism. This piece worked as a foil for the concluding number.

Rondo in A major, D. 951, was the last four-hand piano composition (of 15 piano duets) by Schubert before his untimely death at 31, but you wouldn’t know he was about to die because of its optimistic joy and delightful melodies that spin such interwoven webs. In the last months of his life, Schubert had finally achieved social success, yet did not live long enough to taste its fruit. A short video below features Anna Polonsky playing a duet with Emanuel Ax.

Piano duets were a popular format in the nineteenth century in concert halls, salons, and house parties. Most new orchestral works were published in four-hand arrangements as a way of creating a market for large orchestral works. While salon music dwindled, the recording industry with its full orchestral blare, dealt the death-blow to the four-hand piano industry. That is a shame because four-hand piano playing at its best offers an impish charm and improvisational spontaneity that rarely finds a place in today’s concert hall. Those attending Sunday’s concert at Music Mountain enjoyed a rare and delightful treat of four hands that dazzled with their unified play.

The performers for next Sunday afternoon at Music Mountain are the Arianna String Quartet with pianist Victoria Schwartzman. The program consists of: Haydn: String Quartet in A Major, Opus 20 #6 (1772); Brahms: String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 51 #2 (1873); Dohnanyi: Piano Quintet in C Minor, Opus 1 (1895). For tickets go to or call (860) 824-7126.