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Black Cat? Meet Red Fish!

New York
Le Poisson Rouge, 162 Bleecker Street
01/20/2010 -  
Nikolai Kapustin: Two PreludesTwo Concert Etudes
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 8 in C minor, Opus 13 (“Pathétique”)
Franz Schubert: F Minor Fantasy for four hands, D. 940
Edward Grieg: March of the Dwarfs

Tengstrand-Sun Piano Duo: Per Tengstrand, Shan-Shan Sun (Pianists)

P. Tengstrand (© Alexander Kenney)

When growing up in the New York City suburb of Yonkers, my sister and I would go to the Black Cat Bookshop, where, for two dollars, we could purchase a plain brown package which contained eight to ten books. Opening the package was a treat, since we didn’t know if we were getting Yeats’ poetry or a manual on do-it-yourself heart surgery. But it always was unexpected.

Le Poisson Rouge is like the Black Cat packages. Sometimes names are known (Simone Dinnerstein or Lou Reed), but usually listeners pays their money and takes pot luck (as well as a few drinks and light food). Since I had never heard the name Nicolai Kapustin (a composer) or Per Tengstand or Shan-Shan Sun, I took a chance and landed on this wondrous Bleecker Street cellar bar/music room, and was happy enough with the result.

Mr. Tengstrand is a Swedish pianist, now busy recording the complete sonatas of Beethoven, as well as writing his personal program notes. Ms. Sun is a native of Wuhan, a horrible industrial town in Central China. I particularly describe that city since China has produced excellent pianist in the most unlikely places, and Wuhan is certainly one of them.

But Ms. Sun, who performs both with Mr. Tengstrand and as soloist, was a charmer both as performer and interlocutor. And certainly the first offering needed an introduction.

S.-S. Sun (© Alexander Kenney)

Nikolai Kapustin was that unlikely pianist-composer, a writer of jazz in Stalin’s Soviet Union. I had always assumed that jazz then was limited to Dmitri Shostakovich’s arrangement of Tea for Two. But no, Mr. Kapustin produced many piano works incorporating blues, boogie-woogie, and syncopated music of all kinds. And yes, it sounded rather sanitized here, the piano improvised like early Teddy Wilson, with blues progressions and a velvet cocktail-party beat.

The Two Preludes were insipid works, fit for elevators (or Politburo Old Men’s taste). But two of the 40 Concert Etudes played by Ms. Sun had a lively beat, were fun, and played with as much dash and fire as the music would allow. Yes, the music is antique jazz at best, but certainly competent.

Mr. Tengstrand offered a few anecdotes about Beethoven, then launched into a lively “Pathétique”. The Yamaha at Le Poisson Rouge is not a Steinway, and the sounds in the cellar were not the best, but he played with fervor, and gave a remarkably exciting finale rondo.

Except for the Kapustin, we had no surprises, and the Schubert four-hand Fantasy gave an indication of how the Tengstrand-Sun Piano Duo work in tandem. More touching performances have been heard, but they played with all the suitable brio. For some reason, Mr. Tengstrand apologized for the “minor keys” of the music (though the Schubert is particularly glorious modulating to the major key before the last minor chords). So Mr. Tengstrand played a “happier” work, Grieg’s March of the Dwarfs, which, far from happy, is grotesque.

The concert was barely an hour, but Le Poisson Rouge rarely goes over that time. Like the two-dollar Black Cat packages, this one produced a few pleasant surprises and two excellent artists. In a full concert, I would love to hear more challenges to meet their skills.

Harry Rolnick



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