Last November SignumClassics released a CD of four-hand piano performances by the husband-and-wife team of Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung. The album features Igor Stravinsky’s four-hand version of the music he composed for the ballet “Petrushka,” which was intended to be used as a rehearsal score. This is followed by the four-hand version of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 39 collection of sixteen waltzes. Finally, as an “encore” offering, Bax and Chung perform their own arrangements of four tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Taken as a whole, the album may be approached as four distinctively different approaches to dance.
I have been fortunate enough to listen to the Stravinsky selection in concert, since it has been performed by the ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (who have also performed, and recorded, the four-hand version of “The Rite of Spring”). I have come to feel that, while the latter provides many valuable guideposts through which the attentive listener can navigate the complexities of “The Rite of Spring,” the “Petrushka” arrangement is more true to its functional intent. Through it the dancers can learn how their steps relate to the music with an impressive degree of fidelity; but, from a musical point of view, it never really rises to the level of the full orchestral version, particularly in the opening and closing scenes in which the music captures so well the full scope of simultaneous activities on stage.
Far more satisfying is the set of Brahms waltzes. Here again, I have personal experience and personal bias. I continue to marvel at how Brahms could put so much expression into pieces that are as short as these waltzes. The longest is only two minutes in duration, which is practically instantaneous compared to the waltzes of Frédéric Chopin. Yet there is so much spirit within that brevity. Bax and Chung have clearly been moved by that spirit and communicate their impressions wonderfully.
The same can be said for the Piazzolla arrangements. Each of these is about twice as long as a Brahms waltz, and yet each stands as a snapshot of the intimate passion of Piazzolla’s world. The approach to the final selection, “Libertango,” was particularly effective, providing yet another example of the extent to which Piazzolla’s music can reach far beyond the context of his original dance-hall environment.