MUSIC: CONCERT REVIEW
Reducing an entire orchestra to two pianos (and it works!)
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 02, 2010 5:18PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 02, 2010 5:19PM EDT
Nexus + 2X10
At Walter Hall in Toronto on Monday
Before there were recordings, if you wanted to hear a new orchestral piece you had to wait for a concert or play it yourself on the piano. Nowadays, a piano transcription can work like an X-ray, stripping a familiar piece of its orchestral colours and clarifying its harmonies.
Pianists Lydia Wong and Midori Koga (who call themselves 2X10) opened the University of Toronto’s Faculty Artist Series with a pair of hefty two-piano transcriptions, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Holst’s The Planets, with support from the percussion group Nexus (Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Russell Hartenberger and Garry Kvistad). Here’s how they read the bones of these 20th-century landmarks:
Part of this piece’s extreme novelty, when it was new in 1913, was its fierce foregrounding of percussive rhythm in all instruments. 2X10’s fleet, icy-clean performance reminded everyone that a piano is really a virtuoso percussion instrument. Staccato passages that often sound sluggish on massed strings flew by on winged feet. At the other extreme, heavy four-handed passages sometimes felt even more stolid than their orchestral equivalent.
Nexus, playing parts from the orchestral version, gave proportionally greater wallop than they would have behind a full orchestra, and greatly enriched the bass at key moments.
But the pianos also domesticated the piece somewhat, by making it seem smoother and less effortful. It’s really something to hear this piece struggle out from a mass of instruments playing so much against their usual grain. It wasn’t the players’ fault that they couldn’t match the lowing bull-headedness of Stravinsky’s horns and trombones, or the intensity of a solo trumpet screaming out a high chromatic tattoo. On that scale, pounding out a brass motto on the keyboard or jumping up the octave just doesn’t register.
I found I was listening to two pieces at once: the live one and the remembered one for full orchestra, and that’s to be expected. Also inevitable: to be a little gob-smacked, all over again, by the audacity of this piece, by its complexity and also by its cunning, crushing simplicity.
Holst’s 1917 piece allowed a lot more lyrical display from the duo, especially in the meltingly lovely second movement (Venus, the Bringer of Peace). The rippling clean execution of the Mercury movement felt more in character than most orchestral performances, in part because it’s so much easier to make things flow across four hands than 200. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Agesounded particularly august and tragic; the lean sound of the pianos became an unexpectedly apt symbol of the reductions enforced by advanced age.
Nexus (with John Rudolph) became a more colourful partner, armed with xylophone and tambourine (for Stravinsky, it was mostly bass drums and timpani), but their flecks of colour sometimes seemed too exaggeratedly different from the piano tone, like a daub of primary colour thrown on a fine-grained black-and-white photo. The big drums gave huge extra heft to Mars, the Bringer of War, but they also sabotaged this opening movement’s supreme moment, blotting out the paroxysmal dissonance to which the whole martial machine had been lurching. We got it back when Holst repeated the progression, in stages down the keyboard, but by then it was too late.
The seven-movement work ended with an unfortunately pungent choral incursion, from the lobby, by the University Women’s Chamber Choir, whose intonation in Neptune, the Mystic was dubious from start to finish. A very unmystical conclusion to an otherwise stimulating show.