Brightly Does It: Serkin and Shanghai Dazzle

The Shanghai Quartet
Weigang Li violin
Yi-Wen Jiang violin
Honggang Li viola
Nicholas Tzavaras cello
Peter Serkin piano
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
Friday, November 9, 2012
8:00 pm

Reputations of internationally renowned ensembles are bound to influence our expectations; the immediacy of a live performance allows us to put aside the accolades and bask in the music. Such was the dynamic at Bailey Hall last Friday, when pianist Peter Serkin joined the Shanghai Quartet for nearly two hours of enrichment. The centerpiece was Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng’s Dance Capriccio, making its New York state premier. Born in the quartet’s namesake, Sheng spent seven years studying folk culture of the Tibetan borderlands during the Cultural Revolution before entering the Shanghai Conservatory and uprooting to the US, where he now teaches composition at the University of Michigan. The spirit of that research continues to inform his work, and the Dance Capriccio’s deft shuttling of western Nepalese Sherpa idioms through a loom of classical counterparts is no exception. Yet rather than oversimplify his craft as a fusion of “East” and “West,” as much press on Sheng is wont to do, we did better to take this newly commissioned piece on its own terms, as dictated by the very ones for whom it was written. The spectral qualities of its awakening were clear from note one, its eddies of ink and time as brooding as they were animated. This brief glimpse into the lives of an ethnic group rarely known for anything beyond mountaineering was a treat for jaded ears. The layering of rhythmic signatures, combined with challenging octave splits from Serkin, made for rich tonal brocade and many translucent, if not also transcendent, passages. Like a stormy sky enjoying its thunder, memorable flashes of brilliance marked its canvas.

Making a sandwich of the evening were two no-less-colorful examples of standard repertoire. Of these, the A-Major Piano Quintet of Antonín Dvořák made the deepest impression and paired naturally with Sheng’s montage. At its heart is the Dumka, a Slavic form of which Dvořák was particularly fond. As the jewel of the performance, it showcased the musicians’ superb dynamic control—even the single pizzicato strokes from second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang rang true. The Dumka’s characteristic balance between sadness and gaiety was embodied to the gills by Serkin and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras. The composer’s affection for the cello, outside of his concerto for the same, is elsewhere hardly so apparent, and its mind-meld with the keys formed the golden thread that began the piece and flowed through a landscape, pastoral yet pensive, toward an effervescent Scherzo in the Bohemian style. All of this seemed mere preamble to the gnarled Finale, in which Dvořák’s cellular approach and astonishing instinct for forested textures was clear as day.

The concert opened with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major. Nicknamed “The Hunt” and so called for the first movement’s triadic evocation of hunting horns, it offered a conservative start to a concert otherwise roiling with emotion. These delicate considerations drowned in the swoon of the second movement, with its beautiful gilding from first violinist Weigang Li and permeable support from violist Honggang Li. The Adagio was the night’s first highlight and proved that these four bows are at their virtuosic best when given time to ponder. With so much elasticity to savor, we were won over by the enchanting syncopations of the final movement. Its winding circles of light, full of intent yet never cajoling, played a game of chase in lieu of capture. The quartet rendered Mozart just right: evocatively without ever being too theatrical.

Serkin, a player I’ve long admired on disc (not least for his duo recording with András Schiff on ECM), was splendid on stage. He plays like a violinist, wiggling his fingers for a cerebral vibrato effect, sculpting notes in their post-attack resonance. He also possesses some of the most elegant legato phrasing in the business. In combination with this world-class act, the effect was dazzling.

(See this article in its original form at the Cornell Daily Sun.)

András Schiff/Peter Serkin: Music for Two Pianos (ECM New Series 1676/77)



András Schiff
Peter Serkin
Music for Two Pianos

András Schiff piano
Peter Serkin piano
Recorded November 1997 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Tom Lazarus
Produced by Philip Traugott, Peter Serkin, and Manfred Eicher

In his liner notes, Klaus Schweizer describes a unique meeting of minds when pianists András Schiff and Peter Serkin appeared on stage together for a November 1997 concert held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rather than join forces, these two “protagonists” rubbed those forces together to see what kind of electricity could be produced, so that “the audience had the pleasure of enjoying a contest of temperaments…and may have come away with the impression that such ‘contrapuntal’ music-making can be more stimulating than the harmony of two kindred souls.” The spontaneity of said performance and all its glorious vices have made their way into this subsequent studio recording, for which we are treated to the same sounds that graced the eyes and ears of all who were there for this rare event. As Schweizer so keenly sees it, this is a program of fugal magnificence, each work drawing from Bach’s highest art its own vivid line of continuity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791):
Fugue in C Minor for Two Pianos, K. 426
Mozart’s fugue may be without commission or context, but we can safely assume it was more than an honorary exercise. As its grinding voices quickly resolve themselves into harmonious contrapuntal weaves, we feel a transformation in every resolution. Through a delightful, if slightly cloudy, game of trills and trade-offs, the musicians pull off a garden-fresh take on this engaging opener.

Max Reger (1873-1916):
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven for Two Pianos, op. 86
These variations on a Beethoven bagatelle (op. 119) are like a spindle from which is cast a veritable maypole of permutations. The opening Andante, quoted almost verbatim, brightens with every revolution. With moods ranging from rapture (Agitato) and majesty (Appassionato; Allegro pomposo) to exuberance (both Vivaces) and tearful remembrance (Sostenuto), these colorful miniatures feed like a rainbow into the glowing waterfall of the final Fugue.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924):
Fantasia contrappuntistica for Two Pianos,Busoni-Verzeichnis 256b
What began as an ambitious attempt to complete the unfinished final movement of Bach’s almighty Die Kunst der Fuge turned into Busoni’s crowning achievement. Every gesture of this massive organism is rendered with the utmost artistry and given its full breadth in the exponential possibilities of a keyboard squared. The 10-minute introductory movement alone carries the weight of the whole. A series of fugues and variations “drops” like blocks in a Jacob’s ladder toy, of which the third Fugue and the Intermezzo stand out, the former for its overwhelming heights and the latter for its solemnity.

Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K. 448/375a
Far removed yet of the same passionate spirit is Mozart’s only sonata for two pianos, which receives here as lively a performance as one could ever hope for. Two no less than thrilling Allegros bookend a scintillating Andante, combining to form one of the composer’s most widely recognized pieces and closing this cohesive double album with a thick wax seal.

Since this release, Schiff has continued a longstanding relationship with ECM. Listen and find out where it all began.