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Russian Piano Exhibition at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Aug 13th, 2018

Piers Land and Fei-Fei

Program 6 of Bard’s Summerscape was devoted to examples of Russian pianism. The Preconcert talk by Halina Goldberg urged listeners to think about the concert in terms of Absolute music vs. Program music, observing that program music in Eastern Europe was more popular with a longer lifespan than in Western Europe. I agree with that observation since the Russian style of piano playing really stems from the influence of Franz Liszt who was partial to program music. Russians have a tendency to like program music associated with politics, religion, and historical subjects as well as mood music. Even tendencies in Absolute music inclined to a “program” of musical gimmicks, which is itself a form of program music. It was the late nineteenth century French aesthetes who sometimes had a preference for the theoretical plane of Absolute music (Satie, Sainte-Saëns, and Ravel).  

Fei-Fei opened with Novelette and Scherzino from Four Pieces, Op. 11 (1877) by Rimsky-Korsakov. These were novelty salon pieces designed to evoke astonishment, which is itself a kind of Programmatic music with an abstract edge. This kind of salon style usually offers much repetition with varied sound dynamics while development is arrested until the Finale. These were well-played icebreakers.

Orion Weiss performed Anton Rubinstein’s No. 22 Rêve angélique from Kamennï-ostrov, Op. 10 (1854). Weiss played this with a more Chopin-like inflection than I imaged Rubinstein might have played it. Weiss brought out a deep emotional religious feeling that I don’t associate with the atheist Rubinstein, but that was all to the good. Weiss played with a light, sensitive touch of the keys more commonly found in French piano music (like Gabriele Fauré). This presented an excellent foil for what was to come.

Piers Lane rattled out Prokofiev’s Toccata in D minor, Op. 11 which was another salon novelty piece that showed how a Russian could take the toccata format to the max and flirt without descending into parody while teetering on the brink and providing a salon piece that was nearly impossible to overdo at a party.

Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) by Modest Mussorgsky was then performed by Danny Driver. I have often wondered why Mussorgsky’s parents graced his surname with such a misleading first name. Here was Program music that was as much Absolute music as Program music. The Program did not burden the music diminishing fundamentalism. The more you knew about the program, the more interesting the Absolute music became. Driver was superb. As my friend David said, “Driver’s uncanny sense of rhythm allowed the music to breathe.” Driver did not race through the music at pell-mell pace as I’ve heard before, but invested his pace with deep emotional feeling so that the external program enhanced internal turmoil. As with the case of Absolute music, the opening section related to the grand finale, “The Bogatyr Gates in Old Kiev.” Mussorgsky was intensely emotional as well as providing architectural development. This is, and was, a showstopper that no recording can ever capture. The audience stood and demanded three bows.

After intermission Orion Weiss performed emigré composer Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata tragica, Op. 39, No. 5 (1920), a work that I was not familiar with; its late Romanticism reflected the influence of early Romanticism from John Field’s St. Petersburg Nocturnes. (John O’Conor’s early 1980’s concerts caused a revival in Field that was belatedly recorded by Telarc in 1990, yet the 1994 Chandos recording and live performances by Míceál O’Rourke have surpassed those of O’Conor.) Weiss played this moody meditative, secular music with deep inflection and a more modest Russian inflection that delivered a satisfactory contrast to the explosive bells and thunder of Mussorgsky.

Fei-Fei played a short No. 5 excerpt from Vladimir Rebikov’s Feuilles d’automne (1909), which was pleasantly impressionistic yet quite short. Andrey Gugin played two of 12 Sketches, Op. 1 (1913) by Alexei Stanchinsky, which were not remarkable; he then performed the Andante and Presto from Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in C-sharp minor, Op. 19. This was in spots more satisfactory in delving into emotion, but it remains difficult to find a good Scriabin player in the West. Scriabin, whose symphonies are merely ridiculous, has written much great piano music with a deep yet eccentric emotional edge that is often angular and abstract. There’s a wonderful passage in Boris Pasternak’s brief autobiography where he speaks of his fondest recollections of childhood: his family’s summer dacha was next door to Scriabin’s and he recalls walking in dense woods as the sound of Scriabin’s early piano music lilted through the leaves of summer and autumn—that musical sensibility runs through Pasternak’s best poems.  

For the Finale another grand piano was delivered on stage. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite no. 2, Op. 17 (1901) was performed on two pianos by Piers Lane and Fei-Fei who took the lead piano with its intricate passages and leaps across the keyboard while Lane ardently worked the yearning right-hand theme. This four-hand piece is rarely played and it was a great treat to hear this astonishing work, the success of which helped Rachmaninoff to recover from a nervous breakdown induced by Lev Tolstoy who ridiculed his work when Rachmaninoff visited Tolstoy at his Moscow house and played for the great sage. Once again, there was sensational towering repetition with fluent, fluctuating dynamics, but with music that was more aggressively Absolute than is usual in Russian Music.

Thanks to Danny Driver, Orion Weiss, Fei-Fei and Piers Lane this was a memorable event that conjured wonder.