CONCERT REVIEW Two minds in one work

Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss play a gorgeous program of duets

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This was edited for clarity, but omitted and distorted some of the author’s discussion and introduced errors. Biss and Goode’s performance was very well executed, given that pianists often perform as soloists (due to the timbre, history and range of the instrument). However, some works did not translate well into an arrangement for piano for two hands. The article as it appeared in The Tech was published without the author’s final approval.

Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss

Performing duets by Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Debussy

New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall

February 7, 2010

I anticipated bloodshed, broken bones, or at least tears. On Feb. 7, Jonathan Biss and Richard Goode, two of the greatest pianists alive, played a program of duets. Would these two prima donnas play nice?

Yes, and, beautifully. There was no gore that afternoon, just a cohesive unit in performing works by Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Debussy.

The program began with Schubert’s a minor Lebensstürme, Op. 144, a fiery tone-poem obligatorily programmatic in its eponymous narration of stormy twists in a lifetime. It’s tempting to search for inconsistencies in the performances, to listen for places where one pianist got the upper hand, but the truth is that there was only perfect harmony. An early romantic-era work, Lebensstürme features sharp harmonic twists in the bass voices, performed by Richard Goode, which highlight harrowing melodic turns in the melody, performed by Jonathan Biss. To say that these performers complemented each other is to miss the point, somehow, Maybe the kudos should go to Schubert. Writing multiple voices for a single instrument (both pianists performed from a single keyboard) that lacks the shifts in timbre that denote different melodies is difficult. But somehow the contrasts were crystalline, the lines beautifully demarcated.

With an effulgence of cascading notes, the two next charged into Robert Schumann’s Op. 86 Six Canons, arranged for the piano by Claude Debussy. Performing on separate pianos for these works, Goode and Biss’s constant dialogue and communication was poignantly illustrated as the two nodded and conducted each other across the lengths of the pianos. Although it’s patently clear that the two pianists were successful in presenting a unified thesis of Debussy’s transcription, programming may have been an issue. While Schumann’s work was originally scored for multiple instruments, each with different timbres and voicing, translating the work for two very-similar pianos lost some of the contrast that may have been essential for the composer’s conception of the imitative voicing.

This question of the validity of arranging for two pianos pervaded the entire afternoon. The first half of Sunday’s concert ended with Beethoven’s arrangement of his Op. 134 Große Fuge for piano duo, originally scored as the finale of his Op. 131 string quartet. Beethoven’s magnum opus was questionable at its conception, trying the audience with jagged melodies, frenetic shifts in mood and daedelian counterpoint. Arranged for two pianos, Beethoven’s work becomes an almost freakish show of technical prowess and sheer virtuosity. Goode and Biss tackled the substantial work with a gusto that was both frightening and impressive, yet ultimately, empty: on two pianos the work somehow becomes even more incomprehensible than the string quartet version — more an impressive wall of sound than a masterful vision of counterpoint.

Stravinsky’s arrangement of his ballet Agon presented its own very different challenges. Arrayed for two pianos, Biss and Goode’s approach for the ballet utilized the homogeneity of their piano’s timbre as an asset. Stravinsky’s late work, although strongly based in the rustic folk roots of the rest of his opus, teeters dangerously on the edge of serialism developed by his contemporaries in the Second Viennese School earlier in the twentieth century. Arranged for the piano, the work has a strange affect; surprisingly warm during when Stravinsky is at home in his native tone-world, stark and somehow terrifying in his experimentation with the atonality of his contemporaries. Whereas the lack in variation of timbre obfuscated the counterpoint in previous works, the homogeneity somehow facilitated the austere tone world Stravinsky thrusts us into in movements of this work.

The afternoon closed with Claude Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir, a perfect conclusion. Scored for two pianos, Debussy’s work exploits the two instruments for their collective capacity as a unified orchestral instrument, scoring a symphonic tone poem in the considerably more compact space of two keyboards. In Goode and Biss’s experienced hands, Debussy’s work took on the presence and appeal of a multiple piece ensemble, conducted from a single podium. Certainly technically impeccable, what was more intriguing was the treatment of the different melodies — military calls were answered by triumphant reprisals of Lutheran hymns. Swelling runs achieved their climax in an almost preternatural understanding of the abilities and motives of the two musicians.

Sunday afternoon’s performance, well attended despite the impending Superbowl, was greeted by enthusiastic applause. The pianists rewarded the audience with an encore of Schumann’s Op. 85 Abendlied.

Boston’s 2009-10 Celebrity Series continues on Sunday, 21 February, with a performance by Emerson String quartet members David Finckel and Philip Setzer, joined by pianist Wu Han, playing an all-Schubert program at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.

Goode and Biss, or whoever decided what they were going to play, is a genius, although there’s no good way to discuss it: melodically centered Schubert, followed by contrapuntal/serialist Schumann, Stravinsky, concluding with a narratively-themed Debussy all centered around the prophetic claims that Beethoven extols in his Große Fuge — A B || B A. See? Genius. Neither James Joyce nor Vergil could have done better.