Rarely does one get the opportunity to hear a variety of difficult works written for two pianos (plus other instruments) on a single concert. The promise of such an unusual program attracted a good audience to Brevard College’s Porter Center, where many of the Brevard Music Center chamber music concerts are performed. It was a disappointment, then, to learn that John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction had been scrapped and replaced with the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448. Mozart’s galant-style piece is an elegant and satisfying work, to be sure, but is worlds away from Adams’s experiment in two-piano percussive minimalism, which had been originally selected as a closer companion to the heavyweight on the program, Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.
Pianists Sandra Wright Shen and Elizabeth Pridonoff opened the program with the Mozart, written in 1781 for Josepha von Auernhammer after the composer first arrived in Vienna. Shen has taught at Southern Illinois University and currently works from Northern California. Pridonoff, a Steinway Artist, is Professor of Piano at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory. The two pianos were nested together, the back instrument’s lid raised at full stick, the front instrument with lid removed. In this elegant but extroverted three-movement piece, Mozart seemed to be striving to impress his Viennese audience with the technical demands he could exact from either player, while retaining his sense of humor. The sonata was played with a wonderful balance of seriousness and humor, and impeccable technique.
Next on the program was a staple of the repertory, Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), like Barber, was a child prodigy, performing in public on organ and piano before he was seven. Le carnaval des animaux (1886), a series of fourteen programmatic movements (some of them parodies of well-known compositions), shows his wit and knowledge of instrumental techniques. Pianists Douglas Weeks and Craig Nies were seated in back of a small chamber ensemble, consisting of Jason Posnock and Margaret Karp, violins; Anna Joiner, viola; Andre Gaskins, cello; Craig Brown, bass; Dilshad Posnock, flute; Eric Ginsberg, clarinet; Conrad Alexander and Andrew Sickmeier, percussion. Weeks, a Steinway Artist, is the Babcock Professor of Piano at Converse College’s Petrie School of Music; Nies is Associate Professor of Piano at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University.
Easily a crowd pleaser, the suite of short movements afforded many opportunities for virtuosic display and humor. Hens cluck incessantly (two violins) before they’re silenced by a violent piano chord. Tortoises labor in a lumbering Offenbachian can-can. Kangaroos sport in grace-noted springs up and down the pianos. The poor cuckoo (clarinet) repeats his droll, monotonous two-note song against the solemn, chorale-like backdrop of piano chords representing the forest. Many of the humorous gestures are recapped in the finale which sounds at times like the zoo unleashed. Kudos to everyone in the ensemble for a wonderfully fun rendition!
After intermission the stage had been rearranged for Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Pianists Shen and Pridonoff were joined by percussionists Charles Ross and Conrad Alexander, who moved constantly among timpani, snare drum, bass drum, xylophone, gong, and cymbals. Bartok had left careful instructions in his score for both the placement of each instrument as well as techniques to play the percussion. Written in 1937, the work was premiered by the composer and his second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, in 1938 at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ICSM).
The first movement Assai lento – Allegro troppo in sonata form opens serenely with a chromatic, tightly winding theme, much like that of the first movement of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The air of quiet mystery is dispelled repeatedly by loud, dissonant sounds as the piece gains momentum and the texture thickens. Although the movement is peppered with rhythmic motives and percussive exchanges among the instruments, lyricism isn’t abandoned entirely. Toward the movement’s end, the themes emerge with more conventional tonal sounds, as though some of its chromatic kinks had been worked out. A fugato coda announced by a snare roll features a dotted-note theme that builds into extremely dense and relentless counterpoint, played at such a clip that page turning became its own challenge. Pridonoff, the only pianist turning her own pages, turned over two pages more than once, and each time calmly turned them back (but at lightning speed) while playing the most difficult passages — with two hands!
The second movement, a ternary form Lento ma non troppo, featured some of Bartók’s “night music,” delicate themes in broader rhythms that utilized the extremes of the pianos’ registers. Insistent motives sounded against a wash of sounds created by glissandi and other blended harmonies. The third movement Allegro non troppo, a combination of sonata and rondo forms, was a whirlwind of incessant demands on the pianists in a cascade of such densely written music that it would take several hearings to fully take in all that was there. The audience was on its feet immediately after the unexpectedly quiet close in tribute to the enormous talent of these four artists.