The February 25 recital by pianists Phyllis Vogel and Nancy Ping-Robbins, who perform regularly as the Chekker Duo, offering a recital each semester in NCSU's Stewart Theatre and occasionally elsewhere around the country as well, got off to a bit of a rocky start when Vogel's page turner turned the first page of her score of Debussy's "En Blanc et noir" a few measures too soon. Vogel did not remain flustered for long, however, and together with Ping-Robbins gave a fine reading of this complex and difficult work.
It was a daring choice for an opener. The work is not a sonata because the three movements do not particularly relate to each other. Neither is it a traditional suite of Renaissance or Baroque dances/dance rhythms-the recital was, after all, entitled "An Evening of Suites and Sonatas by the Masters." It is really three totally separate pieces that convey overall a generally dark feeling because Debussy was very disturbed by World War I, and the cancer that would kill him three years later had been recently discovered when he composed it in 1915. Each movement has a poetic text as an epigraph and is dedicated to a different person. The black and white of the title refer to the keys of the piano, of course, but they also suggest moods. The central movement is the dark one, but it is also the longest one, so it tends to lend its texture to the whole, especially with its echo of the German chorale "Now thank we all our God." It's as if Debussy had more that he wanted and needed to say than he could give to a single keyboard and one pair of hands, not that speed or quantity of notes is an issue, mind you, but that he didn't want to say it with an orchestra. In some ways, it's like a set of "Images" for two pianos that evokes moods without suggesting specific locales associated with them.
The second work of the evening, Hindemith's Sonata for Two Pianos, written in 1942, was also by a composer profoundly disturbed by war-World War II, this time. The work has five movements, like many suites, and is indeed structured like a suite by Bach and written very much in his style with numerous fugues, easy to get lost in. It opens with a "Glockenspiel" bell-sounding movement, proceeds to a jazzy Allegro, then on to a lyrical Canon, followed by a mystical Recitative and ending with a Fugue. It is a cohesive work, but full of dissonances. Vogel, in her excellent oral comments, followed by brief demonstrations at the keyboard by Ping-Robbins, for each of the works on the first half of the program, suggested that the audience might try to imagine "Row, row, row your boat," "Mary had a little lamb," and "Old McDonald had a farm" all being sung in round simultaneously. The performance was impressive; no one got lost, either.
The first half concluded with Howard Blake's "Dances for Two Pianos," composed in 1976, a suite of nine short modern dances including, among others, a Rag, a Jump, a Boogie, a Cha-cha, and a Galop. Here, the rhythm was definitely the thing. It is a light and charming piece with some syncopation here and there, reminiscent of Milhaud's "Scaramouche" for this reviewer, and a refreshing change from the heavier material that preceded it. The second half opened with Esther Williamson Ballou's Sonata for Two Pianos, composed in 1949, this time a true and traditional sonata, not a suite masquerading as one. The American Ballou was born the year Debussy wrote his "En Blanc et noir" and was the first woman composer to have a work premiered at the White House, in 1963, ten years before her death. This sonata, though seven years younger, is less modern than Hindemith's. It is very interesting and enjoyable, lyrical and melodic, although not totally without dissonance. It was a treat to hear these two unfamiliar works by unknown masters. The performances were equally delightful.
The evening concluded with one of the best known works in the duo repertoire, Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2, Op. 17, composed in 1901. The program's title thus might have included "20th Century" somewhere in it, although this is a late-Romantic work. This is a true suite and these are dance rhythms: an Introduction that is a march, a Valse, a Romanza, and a Tarantella, and they are all brilliant showpieces. The performance was brilliant, too, glimmering like the matching outfits of the pianists. The program notes by Vogel (though she didn't give herself the credit due) concluded by saying that the final movement serves "as a reminder of the immense technique which Rachmaninoff the pianist once possessed." The Chekker duo's technique was also immense.
Stewart Theatre seemed a particularly good venue for this music. The fortissimi did not hurt the ears and the pianissimi were perfectly audible. Alas, so were the whispered conversations among some of the listeners and their shuffling of the pages of the programs. The audience of 125 to 150, mostly students, was disappointingly unresponsive. Perhaps they were just happy that the assignment was completed, not realizing the quality and value of what they had just heard.
So what's a "chekker," you ask. Vogel elucidated at the beginning of the evening: it's a medieval keyboard instrument with strings. A bit of research revealed that it is mentioned, but alas never described, in literary texts and instrument inventories from the 14th to the 16th centuries. What does it look like and how did it function and sound? It's anyone's guess. Many scholars seem to think it was probably an early clavichord; some think it was a generic term for any keyboard instrument; others think it's a myth. The word is related to the French échiquier, which has numerous variant spellings and also means a chess board (black and white squares!), although that is more commonly spelled échequier, and is different from a checker board, a damier in French.