The pre-concert lecture for the January 21 Steinway Society recital by duo-pianists Klara Frei and Termirzhan Yerzhanov stressed the influence of the Biedermeier Period, that era, c. 1815-1850, that gathered competing forces from Classicism and Romanticism in order to condense cultural forces into the emerging bourgeoise: for the most part, this tendency resulted in a plethora of keyboard instruments in middle-class homes, with a concomitant rise in works composed for domestic use by both professionals and gifted amateurs. On the negative side, the image of “Papa Biedermeier” came to mean an anti-intellectual, Philistine attitude, of glib and shallow “soirees,” too often manipulated to encourage social climbing. But at their best, we had the Schubertiades, those intimate assemblies of composer Franz Schubert and his faithful entourage, devoted to music of aural and spiritual beauty.
The Frei-Yerzhanov duo performed salon music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, demonstrating their deft and spirited accuracy in works requiring seamless unity of touch, timing, emotion, and phrasing. They opened with Schubert’s last four-hand work, his Rondo in A Major, D. 951, composed some five months prior to his death in 1828. The piece began with an affecting Allegretto quasi Andantino that beguiled with its combination of animated reverie and simple, cheerful serenity. In more sonata form than strict rondo structure, the music modulated to the dominant E Major where it began a circuitous progression of rare and exotic sonorities, climaxing gloriously at the coda. A trace of mortality entered via a minor sixth and a retard, leaving us with a shudder for those “still fairer hopes” in Schubert never realized.
The Mendelssohn Andante and Allegro Brillante in A, Op. 92 (1841) made the “conventional” aspect of the Biedermeier school concrete. In a form which the composer had already refined in his Op. 14 Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, he conceived a slow-fast display piece that serves as a virtual, staccato toccata in 6/8 for four hands. Much of the peppery filigree seemed drawn directly from the ubiquitous A Midsummer Night’s Dream fairy mode. Light, dexterous, songful, exuberantly brisk, the music evoked the glamorously transparent piano technique of both artists, who thoroughly synchronized their colors, dynamics, and rounded phrase lengths, as only Mendelssohn can score a melody. The music did not plumb emotional depths but dazzled by the sheer effusion of its means.
In dramatic defiance of whatever conformity and complacency four-hand music could elicit, the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op. 23 (1861) made serious, affecting points. Based on an E-flat melody from Schumann’s Letzter Gedanke (Last Thought) of 1854, Brahms fashions his first piano duet as a means to pay homage to the master in nine variations, while serving a more “romantic” turn as a dedication to Julie Schumann, Clara’s daughter, whom Brahms considered courting. The theme – for those who know Schumann’s rather esoteric Violin Concerto in D Minor – forms that work’s second movement, given the monothematic and monochromatic character of the piece. Brahms treats the tune comparatively freely, given his penchant for strict variation inhis Op. 24 Handel set. Melancholy and often texturally thick, the piece reserves for the Primo part the main focus of the melodic curve. With ensuing variants, the music modulated into E-flat Major and Minor, sometimes becoming more adventurous, sometimes pushing the Steinway to stentorian, percussive limits. Frei and Terzhanov made us feel the tension in the middle of the set, in the fifth variant, set in B Major. By the eighth variation, Brahms had the two parts moving in contrary motion. And the ninth and last variation, clearly stating Schumann’s gloomy theme, but its sense of resolution seems thwarted by the “fate” motif Brahms had co-opted from his other idol, Beethoven.
After intermission, more Schubert: here, the 1818 in D Major, D. 608, a work not published until seven years after Schubert’s death. This swaggering rondo enjoyed a distinctive, Viennese gait, kaleidoscopic in colors, and truly gemuetlich in character. Some of us recall this happy piece from the Schnabels; others, from Badura-Skoda and Demus. The publisher Diabelli added as a postscript to the score, “Our friendship is constant,” perhaps an allusion to the crossing of the the performing duet’s hands. While sparkling throughout most of the composition, a sense of menace invaded the coda, that “Death and the Maiden” trope that so much characterizes Schubert’s opera.
The last entry in the formal part of the evening, Schumann’s nine Ballszenen, Op. 109 (1851) offered us a rare moment of the composer’s late style in character-pieces. Somewhat loosely assembled in the manner of a Bach partita, the set of dances proffered both terse and lengthy ballroom scenes, some decidedly “symphonic.” Several studies could be construed – as in the Brahms set – as “academic,” lacking a true melodic gift or as merely derivative, as in the ninth, which smacked much of a Chopin polonaise. But others had a potent affect, often harmonized in the way of a Bach chorale, with a moving, chromatic bass line. The No. 4 Ungarisch (Hungarian, in D Major) found an ostinato that Dvorak must have known well, since it resonates in the latter section of the Dumky Trio. Despite designations “French” and “Scottish,” those episodes could ring startlingly Teutonic. The audience, nonetheless, never wavered in its vital enthusiasm for these players, who graced us with a spirited reading of Schubert’s first Marche Militaire in D, D. 733, No. 1. If the martial outer sections did not have us tapping our collective feet, the lovely Trio in G had us singing – especially the praises of Frei and Yerzhanov.