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This recital at the Thomas Auditorium of Blue Ridge Community College began with Yun-Ling Hsu playing the first group on solo piano. Ana Rosa Hernandez then joined Hsu for the remainder of the program, consisting of works for piano four-hands. Hsu played primo and Hernandez secondo throughout.
The program opened with "Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs" arranged by Earl Wild for solo piano. Wild, a super-virtuoso himself, uses many techniques that are reminiscent of Liszt's transcriptions, with lush running passages out of which pop the heavily accented notes of the familiar themes. Hsu's execution of the four selections established that she too has a formidable mastery of piano technique.
Robert Schumann originally composed his 6 Etudes in Canon Form, Op. 56, for pedal fortepiano, (an instrument that doesn't exist today) which had a pedal board like an organ. Georges Bizet arranged the work for piano four-hands, adding his own aesthetic so that it really is Schumann-Bizet. This work sounded under-rehearsed, with some uncertainty between the partners at ritardandos.
The first half of the program concluded with an arrangement by Ernest Guirard of Camille Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre." After intermission came the first three of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Six Pieces, Op. 11, composed for piano four hands. The Barcarolle was missing the rocking motion that I associate with a gondola and lacked the smooth gentleness of a gondolier's folk song, on which this musical form is based. Instead, the work was played percussively. The Scherzo and the Russian Theme were more satisfying. Two of Antonín Dvořák's "Slavonic Dances" followed.
The program concluded with what Hsu described as a "programmed encore," three brief dances by Ignacio Cervantes (1841-1905). Cervantes studied with Louis Moreau Gottschalk and later at the Paris Conservatoire (where Liszt heard him with approval) before returning to Cuba and losing contact with North American and European musical circles. He composed unabashedly using Cuban rhythms such as the habanera and the tango. This composer of fine piano works should be much better known. As Dr. Steven G. Estrella says in his online encyclopedia, "Ignacio Cervantes was Cuba's greatest 19th century composer. His music is complex, revealing, entertaining, and handsomely crafted." Hsu and Hernandez (a Cuban native) prepared this work for a recital they will give in November at the Sala Ignacio Cervantes in Havana, Cuba. Cervantes, who seems to be forgotten in America, is honored in Cuba by having a gorgeous concert salon named for him. I felt Cervantes was the major "find" of the evening, and am happy at the discovery.
Schubert was perhaps the only major composer who took the four-hand piano literature seriously, and I was disappointed that neither his Sonata in C nor his Fantasie in F minor were on this program. A friend of mine, who has extensive knowledge of the four-hand piano literature, characterized the event very well as an "academic" concert. Perhaps that was inevitable, since Hsu is a faculty member at the University of Central Florida, and Hernandez recently completed her master's degree as a student of Ms. Hsu. What made this an academic event rather than a stirring public concert? I suggest that the audience was being asked to consider the works intellectually, rather than be involved emotionally. The musicians played the program with technical precision, but I did not feel personally invested in much of the music. I never felt as though things were at risk, the way I feel during memorable performances. The positive aspect of this academic concert was the discovery of Cervantes.