Friday, January 12, 2024

Start the New Year with Piano Duets: Varshavski & Shapiro return to Harrisburg

With the Old Year now (if not finally) behind us and the unknown quantity of a New Year ahead, Market Square Concerts presents the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo in a return to Whitaker Center for its first concert of 2024 on Sunday at 4:00. The program includes works by Schubert and four composers writing from the start of a new century, between 1901 and 1911; or, if you want to think of it, as an Austrian, a German, a Russian, a Spaniard and a Frenchman (not necessarily walking into a bar). (You can read about their previous appearance in 2017, here.)

The Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo

Stanislava Varshavski was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, made her orchestral debut at the age of eight, and continued her studies in Jerusalem.
Diana Shapiro, born in Moscow, Russia, emigrated to Israel and met Varshavski at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy. In 1998, their teacher suggested they form a piano duo and they soon garnered the top prize at a piano duet competition in Poland. Moving to Boston in 2005 and eventually earning doctorate degrees, they now pursue busy careers as teachers and performers around the world. 

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It always amuses me how, when you attend a piano recital, more of the audience is seated on the left side of the auditorium. I'm told this is “so I can see the keyboard” when in fact you still can't see the keyboard or the pianist's hands well enough anyway. One of the things about the Piano Duet, however, is how each pianist works out “their turf” on the keyboard: does the “primo pianist” (playing the upper register and therefore most of the melody) play all the notes above Middle-C and the “secondo pianist” (playing the lower register and therefore primarily the harmony) play only notes below Middle-C? And who controls the pedal? Or turns pages?

So let me begin with the last work on the program, Maurice Ravel's “Spanish Rhapsody,” which, in this video, will give you the optimum seat if you really want to watch the keyboard and the pianists' hands: suspended directly above them!

So you see, it's not just working out the notes you play: you also need to sort out when and where you're playing them so you don't collide with your partner (assuming you want to remain partners for long). It's as much a ballet as it is a piano recital!

Of the composers on the program, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Manuel de Falla are all well-known names; Reger may be a relatively well-known name but it's unlikely his music is as familiar as the other four (I'll get to that later). It's also interesting to note that, while Schubert is always a good place to begin, his Rondo, written in 1828, is the only one outside the perimeter of the other works on the program: Reger's Burlesques were written in 1901, by a composer clearly “Late-Romantic” and much influenced by Bach's counterpoint and German harmonies and textures that might remind you of Richard Strauss; Ravel's evocation of Spain dates from 1907; Stravinsky's evocation of a Russian fair complete with puppets, Petrushka, was written in 1911; and Manuel de Falla's evocation of his native Spain, the opera La vida breve, was completed in Madrid in 1905 but not staged until the very eve of World War I which would soon change Europe forever.

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There is little I can add about Schubert's music and his short life you might not already be aware of from reading previous posts. For the Rondo in A Major (No. 951 in the Otto Deutsch Catalogue), there's not much “historical background” about it beyond a few facts: it was written in the last year of his life (to be exact, about five months before his death); and it was written at the request of his publisher Arataria who specialized in the “domestic music market.”

On the surface it would seem an uncomplicated piece intended for the amateur players of Vienna, written for one of the most common forms of “home entertainment” in the days when families and friends would gather after dinner and sit around the piano (most middle-class homes would have a piano in the parlor) to make their own music or, if you're not up to being a performing, just sitting back and listening. It was not a concert, but it was private music-making at whatever level available, and it was one of the backbones of the publishing business, certainly in Vienna, and often a mainstay of many a composer's much-needed income.

In the summer of 1818, the 21-year-old Schubert had been hired as a music teacher by an Esterházy count (a poorer relative of the Esterházy prince of Haydn Fame) for the sole purpose of preparing his two daughters for their role in entertaining their husbands and their friends. There are numerous accounts of musical evenings where Schubert and one or another of the daughters would play piano duets for the family, and he was also expected to compose new pieces for them to play, as well, including another facet of such domestic musicianship, the “part song,” vocal trios, quartets, or small choirs where various members of the audience would gather 'round the piano and each take a “part.” It's not immaterial that a few years later Schubert would fall in love with the Countess Caroline and dedicate his most acclaimed piano duet to her in April, 1828, the Fantasy in F Minor.

A "Schubertiad" at Josef Spaun's as painted by his friend Moritz von Schwind (Countess Caroline Esterházy's portrait hangs in the center of the wall) 

Of course, there's a difference between the level of artistic achievement of these performances and what we would call professional artists which, for the most part, did not exist outside the largest cities and aristocratic courts (and the household of Count Esterházy was more like that of an upper-middle-class merchant rather than his magnificent cousin). That does not mean the level of the music written for them is “amateurish.” And it is only more recently the word “amateur” has taken on a more pejorative meaning: in German, at Schubert's time, a frequent synonym for amateur was “Liebhaber” (one who “has love” for something) as opposed to one who has been professionally trained, “Kenner” (literally, “knower”).

And there is certainly nothing “amateurish” about the Rondo that Franz Schubert apparently tossed off during the late-Spring of 1828 for his publisher. Of course, anyone can turn Mozart's “Facile” Sonata with its child-like simplicity into childishness or, getting beyond the notes, turn it into something worth listening to.

Here are two great pianists (certainly of the highest “Kenner” status) turning what could in other hands become something verging on the trite (and, in Schubert's hands, there is nothing “trite” about his music!).

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One thing that always fascinates me, since composers rarely work in a vacuum, “where did this piece come from?” Not in the sense of “where does creativity come from,” but what was going on in the composer's life around the time it was composed, what came before and what came after he wrote it?

According to the Deutsch Catalogue, No.951 was composed in June, 1828. No.950 is the large-scale Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major which Schubert also began writing in June and finished the following month. Also worth mentioning is perhaps his greatest work in the piano duet genre, the Fantasy in F Minor (D.940) which he completed in April of 1828. (While there's been much controversy over the timing of the “Great C Major” Symphony (D.944), Deutsch states it was begun in March of 1828.) Not coincidentally, some of the works he wrote in the months following the Rondo are the String Quintet in C Major (D.956), begun in August, the collection of songs known as the Schwanengesang (D.957), and the last three piano sonatas (D.958, D.959, and D.960) completed on September 26th, 1828, each one a masterpiece.

As Lucy Miller Murray points out in her program notes, “to explain Schubert is to explain a miracle.”

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Stravinksy & Nijinsky, 1911
If you need to find out more about Stravinsky's second great ballet – his whole and rather long career was built on the foundation of the three ballets he wrote between 1910 and 1913: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring – here's a link to take you to a post I'd written back in the day for a 2016 performance by the Harrisburg Symphony (at least the video-links for the live ballet performances still work). Here, I'm primarily interested in how such a large orchestral piece (a full-length ballet) works as a piece for a single piano, however many hands may be involved.

Varshavski and Shapiro perform their own arrangement of the complete ballet. As a sample of a live performance, here's the famous “Russian Dance” from the first scene, recorded in 2014:

And here's a YouTube “audio” of their recording on CD (sorry, no video) of the final scene at a typical Russian Shrovetide Fair, complete with a few folk-songs thrown in for local color:

But there was a previous step in this transformative process going back to the premiere performance. Whether it was done by the composer (who probably didn't have the time) or a house arranger with the ballet company's staff, the dancers needed something to rehearse with since they could hardly have the full orchestra sitting around (think of the expense!) and there were no recordings of the piece to play over the sound system (for that matter, were there recordings much less “sound systems” in 1910?). So a utilitarian transcription was made for piano duet so choreographer and dancers could work with rehearsal pianists to sort out the details before the full orchestra was brought in.

Then, in 1921, Stravinsky himself made an arrangement – not, he pointed out, a transcription – of “Three Movements from Petrushka” for solo piano for Arthur Rubinstein. I include the last few minutes with Sean Chen, 3rd place finalist in the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, just to give you an idea of the “process” a composer might take in transforming his own music from one medium to another. And in this case, the results are hardly “amateur”...

People often use “transcription” and “arrangement” interchangeably. A literal transcription, transferring all the notes from one medium into another, is often not possible, certainly in the case of “reducing” a full orchestra down to a single piano (and with just two hands). Making it a feasible piano piece is one thing; making it a reasonable impersonation of an orchestral piece is something else. The end result would depend on the purpose of the “exercise”: is it to recreate a full and listenable work, or is it intended to provide enough of a utilitarian framework so Petrushka's dancers can get used to how they fit into the whole?

So, if one is arranging something for a performance, not just a “study opportunity,” you can make certain concessions to transfer the original version into what works for the new one. In this case, it has to work pianistically while still giving the listener the impression of the orchestral texture and color – and Petrushka is nothing if not brilliant textures and colors! It's up to the pianist to figure out how to bring out, say, a brass line here and make it sound different from the strings behind it there. But it won't work if it doesn't, somehow, fit “under the hands.”

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Ravel in 1907
An excellent example of this would be the work of Maurice Ravel, not just a composer of brilliant and colorful music, but also a brilliant orchestrator turning piano pieces – oftentimes his own – into equally brilliant orchestral works, many of which sound so naturally written for orchestra, you forget they're “transcriptions” (or is it “arrangements”?). A case in point would be his Rapsodie espagnole, the “Spanish Rhapsody” that the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo conclude their program (a video of their performance is included at the start of this post).

Usually, a composer like Ravel would take a piano piece and transform it into an orchestral work – as he did with Mussorgsky's piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel's version is so famous, one of my fellow college professors once asked me, as we listened to a piano recital with Mussorgsky's original, if this was Mussorgsky's transcription of Ravel's orchestral work!) – or take an already existing orchestral piece like his La Valse and immediately turn it into not one but two piano pieces, a version for solo piano and another for two pianos.

In this case, the Chicken-and-the-Egg is more vague: he wrote his orchestral Rapsodie espagnole in 1907-1908, but he based it on a Habañera for two pianos he wrote in 1895 but which he never published (he did, however, lend the manuscript to Debussy who then used the tune in one of his works, Estampes, of 1903, in the Soirée dans Grenade section). Ravel decided to resurrect it for a new work in 1907.

Whether he began the Rhapsody and then decided to use “that earlier, forgotten Habañera,” (maybe he just found it in an old box...?) or whether he heard Debussy's pilfering of his old tune and thought it could be the genesis of a new work of his own, his Rhapsody's final page dated “1.Feb. 1908.” But by this time, he also added three more movements for two pianos to the original Habañera: how many different ways might this have come about: compose all four movements for two pianos, then orchestrate them; write a new orchestral movement and do the “piano transcription” before moving on to the next; compose the whole Rhapsody for orchestra, and then reduce the remaining movements for piano? Basically, there's a possibility the chicken and the egg arrived simultaneously.

It's apparent he finished the piano version before completing the orchestral work, but how long before? Does it really matter? In short, “no.”

Ravel, like many composers, worked things out at the piano. People assume composers who write a piano “score” before finishing an orchestral work are writing a piano piece when in fact – as a composer, I'm well aware how I work and how many other composers might think as well – they are merely writing what pitches and rhythms and other details they want onto two staves rather than writing directly into a full orchestral score: for one, it helps keep things in perspective. It may not be a practical piece to perform on a piano and it might be easier if we'd think of it as a “short score.” But then, as a pianist, Ravel could certainly go back and “clean it up” to turn it into a piano piece.

There's a famous photograph of Ravel playing a “four-hand piano” duet with the dancer/ choreographer Nijinsky, looking over the rehearsal version for Daphnis & Chloe (the ballet was premiered in 1912). He also wrote a suite for piano duet, Ma mère l'Oye (“Mother Goose”) for the children, aged 6 and 7, of some friends in 1910, then orchestrating it the following year.

“Home entertainment” or not, I remember spending many a pleasant evening playing both Mother Goose and Debussy's Petite Suite with a good friend even though we frequently ran into difficulties over who controlled the pedal...

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Rapsodie espganole was one of Ravel's first major orchestral works, completed in 1908 when he was 32. It was also one of his earliest Spanish-inspired works, immediately following his opera, L'Heure espagnole. He would go on to write many more such works, the most famous being his Bolero in 1928. Curiously, there is a hypnotic motive – that descending four-note scalar line that permeates the Rapsodie – that seems to foreshadow the maddeningly hypnotic melody repeated ad infinitem (and beyond) of the Bolero.

It's clear this Spanish influence is natural to Ravel: his mother was of Basque heritage and he was, after all, born in southern France about 11 miles from the Spanish border. While there's an old saying that's too cool to die, how the best Spanish music was written by Frenchmen (one could add Debussy's Iberia to the list) – and let's not forget Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnole (even if it outdoes fellow-Russian Mikhail Glinka's Jota aragonesa by several miles) – it's interesting to read how a real Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, reacted to Ravel's Rapsodie:

“The Rapsodie surprised me with its Spanish character. In perfect agreement with my own intentions (and quite opposed to those of Rimsky-Korsakov in his Capriccio), this hispanism was not achieved by simply copying popular music but much more (with the exception of the jota Feria [in the last movement]) by the free use of the rhythms, modal melodies, and the ornaments of our popular composition, which did not alter the author's own manner.”

Later, Falla would recall from his early days in Paris, how Ravel told him he had not even visited Spain when he composed the Rapsodie but had learned everything he knew about the language, the music, and the general culture from listening to his mother speak and sing folk songs which he adored. What he imagined and turned into his music was “an idealized Spain” experienced vicariously through his mother.

Falla in Madrid (1906)
A year younger than Ravel, Falla himself was born in southernmost Spain in the city of Cádiz, but only learned about the folk music of his native Andalusia when he went to Madrid to study (around 1899-1900, when he also added the patrician particle de to his name). By 1907, shortly after completing his opera, La Vida breve, he moved to Paris where he was befriended by Ravel, Debussy, and, later, Stravinsky who introduced him to the ballet impressario, Serge Diaghilev. With the war, Falla would return to Madrid where he would complete his ballets, El amor brujo and The Three-Cornered Hat, later produced by Diaghilev with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso.

La vida breve (“The Brief Life”) is a gypsy love-story turned tragic. Little performed today, the opera is best known through two dances performed at the soon-to-be interrupted wedding festivities. Curiously, the opera has almost as much “incidental music” as it has vocal, and these two Spanish Dances have been published separately and arranged for numerous combinations, including for piano duet by the Varshavski-Shapiro duo.

Here, just to pique your curiosity, is an orchestral performance by Jesús López-Cobos with Lucero Tena in a 2005 benefit concert held in Madrid in 2005:

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Listen, first, to the Six “Burlesques” Max Reger wrote at the start of the 20th Century before reading the text (or instead of reading the text, whichever works for you). In lieu of a live performance you can watch, this is a recording by the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo from their CD.

The term “burlesque” implies something light-hearted, “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects” (with or without the connotations of those bawdy American dance-halls of the early-20th Century). The root is the Italian word burla, or joke. The last of the six pieces is a send-up of an old Viennese popular song, Ach! du lieber Augustin, by the way.

Listening to these, first, may not prepare you for an account of Reger's reputation as a serious composer of overly serious music usually avoided by those who don't know it.

In 1973, American critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote an article for the New York Times, “Nobody wants to play Max Reger,” in which he quoted Arnold Schoenberg writing to his friend and teacher Alexander Zemlinsky in 1922: “Reger...must in my view be done often; 1, because he has written a lot; 2, because he is already dead and people are still not clear about him. (I consider him a genius.)”

Max Reger in 1905
Of those German composers coming of age around 1900, apart from Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hugo Wolf, however, many German composers of this period have long been largely overlooked. Max Reger is only one of these, along with Hans Pfitzner, Ferruccio Busoni, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Franz Schmidt, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. A concert pianist and organist as well as composer, teacher, and conductor (George Szell was one of his students), Reger wrote primarily keyboard pieces (his organ works are a mainstay of the organists' repertoire), chamber music, songs and choral works. Only after these Burlesques did he begin composing works with orchestra. His most “popular” piece is an orchestral set of Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Mozart (1914) but still, he never composed a symphony (though there is a 50-minute-long Sinfonietta) nor an opera, despite his earliest musical influence.

Taken to Bayreuth by his uncle to see Wagner's Meistersinger and Parsifal in 1888, the 15-year-old Reger was so impressed, he began composing his first piece, an Overture for full orchestra with a score of 120 pages! He then studied theory and composition as well as continuing his piano and organ lessons, writing mostly songs, choruses as well as keyboard works and chamber music. After an illness apparently brought on by his military service forced him to return to live with his parents in 1898, he wrote his first work for chorus and orchestra. The following year, Reger, a Catholic, courted Elsa von Berken, a divorced Protestant, who at first rejected him, but in 1902, the year after he moved to Munich, they were married – and the Catholic church excommunicated him for marrying a divorced Protestant.

The Six Burlesques (Op. 58), composed for piano duet in 1901 were one of some eighteen works written that year, including two string quartets, the start of his 2nd Piano Quintet, and numerous songs and short choral works, plus several organ pieces including his 2nd Organ Sonata. The Burlesques were written between mid-May and mid-June; then in September, he moved to Munich to broaden his experience and, essentially leaving his childhood home and its artistic limitations behind, he began writing the works that would establish himself as a leading composer.

In 1907, he earned conducting and teaching positions in Leipzig and, in 1911, at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen where several of Brahms' later works (including his 3rd and 4th Symphonies) had been premiered in the 1880s. Because of illness, Reger resigned most of his positions at the start of World War I in 1914, and died of a heart attack on one of his weekly trips to Leipzig to teach his regular masterclass. They found a motet he was proofing for publication on the nightstand: the text “reflects how short-lived and transient are both the human existence and the splendor of the world, in contrast to one who is eternal. The last line states 'we' are in his hands.” Reger was 43.

Telling you Reger's reputation as a “difficult composer” has kept people from discovering his music is not exactly fair. But a review like this, of a choral work written only a couple of years after these Burlesques, might explain why many people are reluctant to explore his works:

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“It is not enough to call Reger’s Opus 71, the ink still wet on its pages, the strangest and weirdest thing that has ever resounded in notes. With its dauntless accumulation of huge masses of sound, its unbridled and randomly modulating counterpoint, its strange harmonies leaping over every commonly accepted connecting link and progression, its audacious agglomeration of ugly sounds rarely interrupted by melodic flow, and its difficulties for every participant, far exceeding anything known to date, it may well reach the outermost limit of musical expression altogether, just as it sometimes seems to be an absurd game played with musical forms by a master whose command of his craft borders on genius.”

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On the other hand, one of my favorite replies of a maligned composer to a critic involves Reger's reply to a particularly nasty review of the premiere of his 1907 Sinfonietta:

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“I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!”

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And, bathroom humor aside, that seems a fitting place to end.

– Dick Strawser