How times have changed for the piano at the Carmel Bach Festival – and surely, for most of the festival audience, for the better! Ostracized for years in favor of the harpsichord, the piano has now been allowed, in the era of Music Director Paul Goodwin, to be heard in the performance of Bach and other composers, ancient and modern. This year, the new open mindedness has extended to Poulenc’s aggressive Piano and Winds Sextet, and, in tonight’s (Thursday July 28) program, to Ligeti and even Radiohead.
The excellent Anderson and Roe piano duo – Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, who met at Juilliard and have teamed up ever since – presented a wide-ranging program, which nevertheless convincingly centered around Bach. It was indeed a stroke of luck for the festival organizers, first, to find such gifted replacement artists when others had fallen by the wayside, and second, to discover that they had included Bach in their repertoire for several years. This was a much better situation than the Mozart Society of California used to experience a decade ago, when at least one Mozart piece was required in every program, but the players often seemed not to be very familiar with it.
So, besides four pieces by, or transcribed from, J.S.Bach, we heard a fugal section in the work by Piazzolla, three chaconnes in the pop music transcriptions, and, of course, Bach’s influence on the finale of Brahms’ St. Anthony Variations, which had opened the program.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the orchestral version of this Brahms work was among the most beloved pieces in the symphonic repertoire, and yet now it has been almost totally displaced by longer manifestations of Mahler and Bruckner (and even Shostakovich). Anderson and Roe, dressed rather formally in black and white, gave the original two-piano version of the score a performance better than any I can remember and really made an excellent case that, apart from, perhaps, the big finale with its cascading scales that are so thrilling in the full orchestra, the piano duo is the better format for conveying Brahms’ intentions with perfect and compelling clarity. Right from the opening statement of the theme, the tone and balance were impeccable. (Kudos must also be given to the piano technician, not named in the program, for the masterful tuning and voicing). Everything was just as one would ideally have wished to play it oneself – every amateur pianist understands that as the highest level of praise – with nothing missed, and, equally, with nothing exaggerated. The emotion was there as well as the technical finesse, and I was on my way to Heaven well before the end – in fact, the pastoral variation 7 (Grazioso) with its gentle dotted 6/8 rhythm was the point of no return, with nothing more magical than the answering figures in the first piano part, played diminuendo, rising to a risky ppp top note, without ever missing it. This was duo playing of genius, the only disadvantage being that although the rest of the program was brilliant, it could not improve on this beginning.
Before moving on to the first of the Bach works, Greg and Elizabeth treated us to some informative and entertaining commentary on the program, which they did from time to time during the evening, much better than most musicians, although sometimes taking a shade too long.
The transcription of “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion was exquisitely poised and polished, almost to the point of becoming narcissistic. The aria’s plea for mercy and shedding of bitter tears were absent, and the friendly acoustic seemed to take over. That this was just circumstantial can be confirmed by going to YouTube, where Anderson and Roe play the piece with the gravity it demands.
In “The Art of Fugue” Bach gives himself, as well as his performers, a formidable challenge by starting with the most boring short subject imaginable. It’s easy to feel that in some of the variations he does not overcome this handicap — although Purists may disagree! However, Anderson and Roe, adopting a bright and breezy approach, gave a highly successful account of the Contrapuncti XIII A and B, and the Double Fugue IX.
The first half closed with three tangos by Piazzolla, who is no stranger to classical programs, since his invention and emotional imagination are comparable to those of a fine classical composer. His work has been transcribed for all manner of instrumental groups, and A&R played three very effective transcriptions of their own, the first for piano duet to allow for a more romantic intimacy on the duet stool – “dancing a tango on the keys” as they described it – even though it began with a fugue! The other two, on two pianos, ranged more widely, the first beginning in sultry mood and leading to excitements such as a dazzling descending triplet run, and the second introducing John Cage-like prepared piano effects (used with increasing frequency in the second half of the program). In fact, these effects, when needing active intervention by a performer to mute or pluck the strings from above, while continuing to play on the keyboard, are much better suited to a duo than to a soloist. The moods ranged from the thrilling to the delicious, with flawless execution throughout.
To signal the change of character in the second half, Elizabeth appeared in a décolleté emerald dress, while Gregg had changed from musician’s black into suit with white shirt and tie. Out of deference to the elderly audience, this bit of show business was explained in a suitably dignified way.
The promised group of three chaconnes were quite contrasting, with the punk-inspired first of them perhaps the least compelling, since it became, in true punk style (or at least to classical ears) rather repetitive. But Ligeti immediately came to the rescue with his intriguing “Hungarian Rock”, and the Radiohead piece was riveting, although the advertised extreme noise could not compare with the deafening decibel level of any pop concert (Sunset Center’s amplification system was not in use). The Bach Sonatina that followed was pure and simple, and Kurtag appeared to have done very little to it in this arrangement.
Finally, we heard a magnificent rendering of Ravel’s La Valse, from its evocative rumblings, through the magnificence of nineteenth century ballrooms, to the verge of the outbreak of World War I and the possible impending end of civilization. The playing was of the highest order, and the implications for today’s unstable world were not lost on the audience. The conclusion was greeted by a lengthy standing ovation.
To lighten the tone, encores included audience participation in Mambo! from West Side Story, and a gentle, reassuring arrangement of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”.
So two questions remain.
First, how successful is Anderson and Roe’s enterprise to liven up the two-piano and piano duet scene and appeal to both classical and (especially younger) non-classical audiences? This evening’s concert provided evidence only on how well an older, classical, audience could respond to modern music and popular music, and here the answer was a resounding positive, given playing of this high quality.
Second, was this program appropriate for the Carmel Bach Festival? I believe the audience response showed that it was. Moreover, Bach’s music and his influence were strongly represented in the program, and Bach was never shy of transcribing his own works for other instruments – whatever was at hand to express his incomparable combination of intellectual power and heartfelt, essentially vocal, expressiveness. So I believe he would have reveled in the range of the modern piano, and in the range of compositions we heard, and in the mastery and musicianship of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe. For my money, the spirit of Bach was present.