Democracy at Work: Are The Two Pianists Better Than One?
Alice Tully Hall
Frédéric Chopin : Mazurka in A minor, op.17 No.4  – Berceuse, op.57  – Ballade No. 1 in G minor, op.23  – Sonata in G minor for Piano and Cello, op. 65  – Barcarolle in F sharp Major, op.60  – Trio in G minor, op.8 
Ani Kavafian (violin), Nicolas Canellakis (cello), Michel Brown , Anne-Marie McDermott  (piano)
Frédéric Chopin left a relatively modest output of works for piano and other instruments and among those the majority are compositions that feature the cello. They neatly comprise a CD length or concert program. The Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center chose not to present all of those works, skipping the Polonaise in C Major op.3 and Grand Duo Concertant (written with the cooperation of Auguste Franchomme), but instead decided to feature as soloists two of the Society’s leading pianists: Anne Marie McDermott and Michael Brown. Thus each half of the program presented piano solos which were followed by the larger chamber work. Ms. McDermott performed the Mazurka in A minor, Berceuse and Ballade in G minor, whereas Mr. Brown started the second half of the program with the Barcarolle. Mixing and matching went on with the solos of Ms. McDermott followed by the Sonata in G minor performed by Mr. Brown and his excellent cellist partner Nicolas Canellakis. Similarly, in the second half of the program, Mr. Brown’s Barcarolle was followed by the Piano Trio, with Ms. McDermott, Mr. Canellakis and the veteran of CMS, violinist Ani Kavafian.
Juxtaposing the two pianists one after another allowed the audience to hear how the same piano can sound so different under the fingers of two contrasting pianists, something we do not frequently hear in the concert hall. As for the visuals: the three-piece suit of Mr. Brown and “only” white shirt and a vest of the cellist bother me less that the fact that Mr. Canellakis played his part from memory which, at chamber music concert settings (in my book), breaks the adopted protocol or creates a little faux-pas, in relegating – at least visually! – the pianist to a position of, shall we say, the lesser of the players. I believe that playing with music by the “other instrumentalist” should be bestowed on the pianist as a well deserved courtesy, especially when the pianist is a real-life friend.
As for the performances: Ms. McDermott impressed me more in the two shorter works with her lovely renditions of the wistful, contemplative and in places tragic Mazurka in A minor as well as a lovely interpretation of the Berceuse, which she aced with simplicity, a nice touch and beautiful finger work in the filigrees. She was still as impressive in the much more demanding Ballade and offered a passionate, energetic, nuanced and well thought-out performance. Yet, in the louder moments this listener experienced a little harshness and edginess in the sound of the piano, something that our next pianist was able to avoid in both of the works he presented that evening.
The so-called Cello Sonata is not only the last completed work of Chopin, but also one of his most mature and quite on par with the earlier Piano Sonata in B minor, which it formally resembles. In all of the three sonatas, Chopin created a manner by which the first theme of the work receives an extended treatment in the development section of the sonata, and when its recapitulation appears the composer no longer utilizes that theme.
This sonata was not only Chopin’s last published work but one that he and Auguste Franchomme performed at what turned out to be his last Paris public performance. It will remain our guess why the first movement of the work, indeed the longest and most complex, was omitted on that occasion, but most likely it was not only on account of the health of the pianist but rather his prudence and good sense: quite likely he knew that it was not to be swallowed too well by the aristocrats who were eager to hear some singing, some chamber music (at that concert Chopin played also a movement of the Mozart Trio in E Major), and some solos by Monsieur Chopin. At Alice Tully Hall, Messieurs Brown and Canellakis allowed us to hear not only the complete work but also a first movement repeat! Our cellist, one of the stellar performers of the CMS, displayed his customary excellence and musicality and for once I didn’t have the usual feeling of the cello dominance. It was a perfect sounding duo, a full partnership and unity of thoughts. I was impressed by the sense of architecture and direction of the phrase as well as not even a trace of self-indulgence often experienced in other performances. I admired Mr. Canellakis’ burnished sound, his subtlety of handling dynamics and phrasing and the very elegance of the cello part in both works. Mr. Brown impressed me even more with finding some interesting details in the score, with his handling of a very demanding piano part, the difficulty of which we-the-listeners sometimes tend to forget. All the figurations that the pianist has to negotiate under the cello melody are quite awkward. Here we were luckily confronted with the mastery of Mr. Brown handling all of that with an apparent ease. I especially liked the judicious and well-nigh perfect treatment of tempi throughout the work, but recall with special pleasure the piano flourishes which open the first movement and later appear again: many pianists treat them as a nothing more than a quick passage-work, but Mr. Brown allowed them to sound like a significant melody, albeit a fast one. Perhaps a small detail, but significantly setting the tone for the rest of the work, which received very thoughtful, distinguished and profoundly musical treatment.
After the intermission the stage changed, for a moment, its visage and in the center was placed a table with a large framed proclamation, the CMS Award for Extraordinary Service To Chamber Music for two distinguished musicians: pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim. That proclamation, written in the best legalese, with a lot of “whereas”, just as demanded, was later publicly read in an appropriately humorous manner by CMS Artistic Director David Finckel, assisted by the ebullient as always Wu Han, his wife and Artistic Co-director of the CMS – and it listed all of the recent accomplishments of both honored artists. The sheer number of concerts, presentations, performances and other godly and human acts was numbing and one was impatiently waiting for the proverbial kitchen sink to finish that long list of activities and undertakings, especially in the pandemic era.
Luckily, all of that rather entertaining presentation didn’t take an enormously long time and music did return, this time with Mr. Brown performing Chopin’s Barcarolle: once again he offered a well thought out, very atmospheric version of this most ecstatic, in places almost erotic composition, which departs from the traditional musical descriptions of the barcarolle, though the lilting accompaniment of the left hand miraculously resembles the little waves hitting the sea shore or the edges of a Venetian canal. In the finale, Brown opted for Dionysian rather than Olympian spirit, which in my eyes would better suit the end, but that is strictly a personal choice. Yet in the filigreed runs that conclude the work he still was able to demonstrate full control and didn’t allow them to evolve into a mindless blur of notes.
The early Trio in G minor concluded the concert and it featured the veteran violinist of CMS, Ani Kavafian, whose orchestral debut with the Juilliard Orchestra I witnessed some five decades ago. The legend goes that Chopin was so impressed with Beethoven’s Trio in B flat Major “Archduke” that this august composition influenced his own youthful work. Well, Beethoven he might have heard indeed, but it was already after he composed his own four movement work that is written in the typical “brillante” manner which translates into the piano being very busy and string instruments far less prominent. That is particularly evident in the last movement, based similarly to the Piano Concerto in E minor on the Polish dance Krakowiak (cracovienne). Here the contrast between the virtuoso piano writing and the paucity of the string writing is even more jarring. One of the subsidiary themes in this final Rondo is almost primitive in its simplicity and I wouldn’t qualify it as one of Chopin’s most memorable moments. Ms. McDermott was as always extremely assured and efficient in handling this somewhat ungrateful part – the same type of writing in the piano concertos is at least more exposed! – and presided over her colleagues with her customary elegance and competence. I could have wished for the second movement Scherzo: Con moto ma non troppo to have been played with more grace and a tad slower or certain parts of the opening Allegro con fuoco with more feeling of reflection, but it seems to me that sentimental approach is not for what this pianist strives.
It was an evening enthusiastically greeted by the audience, excellently played and one that allowed all artists to shine. As much as I admire the idea of a pianist being introduced also as a soloist, perhaps in the future CMS might decide to return to the same works, this time enriching the program with the remaining two works mentioned in the beginning of my review. If the idea of two different pianists is still considered, another six minutes of the program could be devoted to the rarely played Variations for four hands. How does that sound to you, friends at CMS?