In a suave display of synchronous ensemble, duo-pianists Alessio Bax and wife Lucille Chung performed keyboard, four-hand music under the auspices of the Steinway Society, Saturday, January 11 at the Hammer Theatre, San Jose. Music by Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky and Piazzolla provided an emotional and color diapason of melancholy and mirth, traversing a range of piano music either meant for the salon or literally conceived on an orchestral scale, vehicles for the gifted duo whose acuity and precision may have reminded older auditors of the golden era of Vronsky and Babin.
The program opened with Franz Schubert’s 1828 Fantasie in F Minor, D. 940, one of three major compositions in the late Schubert opera that convert a one-movement, through-composed, cyclical piece into four movements of the traditional cloth of a sonata. The bittersweet Allegro molto moderato offered pleading, wistful figures whose dynamic levels remained intimate pianissimo or ppp, reflective and tragic. The countertheme, however, bore an implacable “fate” motif, martial and ponderous, alternating in major and minor tonalities. Seamlessly, the music proceeded, Largo, in F-sharp Minor, tolling in trills and double-dotted chords in the manner of a French overture. What relatively carefree lyricism evolved in the Italian manner, over a pompous bass. The Scherzo movement in D sped along as a brisk waltz, Bax and Chung’s exchanging parallel, sparkling phrases. A series of C-sharps led to the most contrapuntal, feverish last section, Tempo I, reprising the tearful phraseology, but now invested by the secondary tune treated in double fugue, building to a resounding climax, and then fading away in a misty uncertainly.
The air of intimacy continued in Debussy’s 1889 Petite Suite, conceived as a partner-piece for the composer and publisher Jacques Durand. Bax and Chung switched primo and secondo roles, opening the tender En bateau with lushly rippling, eddying arpeggios, rife with the spirit of Monet or Watteau. This soft barcarolle literally lulled us into submission, its rocking rhythm and whole-tone scales eventually ending in thirds. The Cortege enjoyed a festive sensibility, belying its more dire stereotype and breezing forward in 16ths. The middle section exploited syncopations rather playful, to return, da capo, by superimposing the first two themes. The exquisite Menuet (Moderato) projected an antique, even eerie beauty, poised in passing by parallel tenths that impart a hint of Spain. The Ballet, last movement, proffered a vigorous waltz, opened in 2/4 but would transition into 3/8. The interval of the fourth and modal scales no less provided an energetic color to the movement, here performed with unabashed aplomb.
In his preliminary remarks before the performance of Petrushka (1911) in Stravinsky’s own four-hand arrangement, Alessio Bax stated that having heard, age eight, a Claudio Abbado recording of the score with orchestra, he became enamored of this ballet of a sawdust-filled doll set in the Russian Shrevetide Fair of St. Petersburg, 1830. Apocrypha has it that Stravinsky had been rolling a ball or a piece of fruit on his piano when he conceived that two major chord structures, C Major and F-sharp Minor, would dictate the course of his drama, the humanity against the artifice. Playing from the very full score his father had secured for the young Alessio Bax, the duo rendered the four tableaux of the ballet with a secure relish for the kaleidoscopic intricacies of the music. This Russian version of Punch and Judy bristles with high tessitura (the flute, in the orchestra version), sounding brass, and obsessive percussion (the piano and the orchestra battery, including snare drum). Petrushka, the Moor, the ballerina, the magician, the crowd, in turn, paraded from the four hands in rhythms that tossed us like guests on a roller-coaster or guests at a Strauss waltz. At the wild finale, the poor puppet collapses in death, but his ghost mocks all that preceded as a mere prologue to reality. For sheer pianistic coordination, we could hardly require more in virtuosity and askew poetry than Bax and Chung had bestowed us.
For their conclusion to the formal concert, Bax and Chung played his transcription of two Piazzolla tangos, “Milonga del angel” and “Libertango.” The Argentinian composer, his innate powers released by studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, revitalized the erotic dance to a new and ennobled status, integrating jazz and classical elements. Piazzolla’s own instrument, the bandoneon, is a button-laden accordion whose folk sonorities permeate his music. The first tango, conceived for a 1962 play, strutted and weaved in slow tempo, while the latter tango, composed in 1974, sensuously vibrated with personal “liberties” by way of thundering percussion and sexy slides. Lucille Chung, in her brief introduction, stated that Alessio promised, “I will never play these with anyone else.”
The one encore, the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G Minor of Johannes Brahms, set us a slick, masterfully polished rendition of an old favorite, received with unanimous, honest appreciation from the full house.