Levit and Volodin the ‘likely lads’strike gold with Debussy and Rachmaninov

Igor Levit piano
Alexei Volodin piano
Two leading pianists come together for a programme of three major works for piano duo, ranging from Mozart’s 1781 sonata to Debussy’s 1915 suite via Rachmaninov’s 1893 ‘Fantaisie-tableaux’ suite; in addition, each also performs one solo work.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Allegretto in C minor D915
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Arabeske in C Op. 18
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Sonata in D for 2 pianos K448
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
En blanc et noir
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Suite No. 1 Op. 5 ‘Fantaisie-tableaux’

Ravishing playing from Igor Levit opening with Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor.The simplicity and control of sound brought this seemingly innocuous piece vividly alive.In his sensitive hands it became a miniature tone poem with it’s whispered question and answer of such poignant beauty.

Alexei Volodin chose the Schumann Arabesque as his solo contribution to a two piano concert between friends.A much brighter sound had me thinking it might be a Fazioli piano instead of Levit’s Steinway.On closer inspection in the interval it turned out to be a twin Steinway.Playing of a stylist who had to ‘do things’ rather than let the music speak for itself.Some beautiful effects trying to find a new inflection for Schumann’s hauntingly returning rondo theme.An ending etched with a bright sound that made me think it must be a different instrument as it became an epic drama instead of a luminous dream.

The Mozart Sonata for two pianos found the two contrasting styles joining in a performance of agility and rhythmic energy rather than charm and grace.
The genius of Mozart shone through as they brought exhilaration and control with the outer movements that after all Mozart does mark Allegro con spirito and Allegro molto.But surely there are many moments in Mozart’s operas with the same indication but the singer has to breathe and shape the florid passages in what is a musical conversation.
It was in the Andante that they found peace and harmony as the music unfolded with a simplicity with only the slightest hint of embellishing Mozart’s purity of melodic outpouring.The coda was pure magic as one friend answered the other in a whispered conversation of ravishing beauty.

It was this beauty and a kaleidoscopic range of sound that they brought to Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir.Playing as one with a sense of colour and character that was astonishing in its range and emotional impact.
A superlative performance of Rachmaninov’s first suite had the audience justly on their feet cheering these two great artists to the rafters.

Of course hoping for an encore but what could they have possibly added to their transcendental performance of the peeling bells in Paques on this day of great celebration?

Debussy composed En blanc et noir at his vacation residence on the Normandy coast between 4 and 20 June 1915. He was suffering from cancer. France had been at war since 3 August 1914, and emotions were heated against everything German.The work is a late fruit of his experience as a pianist and composer, and it contains many personal allusions which have not been completely deciphered. In the second movement, he quoted Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”, known in English as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”,as a reference to Lutheran Germany.Around the same time, during a late flourish in his prolific output, he composed his Cello Sonata ,Sonata for flute,viola and harp and the piano Etudes to which En blanc et noir is often compared.The title En blanc et noir refers not only to the piano keys, but also had another meaning, as Debussy explained in a letter to Robert Gode: “These pieces need to draw their colour, their emotion, simply from the piano, like the ‘greys’ of Velázquez, if you understand me.”Conservative romantic Camille Saint-Saens, complaining about the style of the music, condemned the work, saying “We must at all costs bar the door of the Institut de France against a man capable of such atrocities; they should be put next to the cubist pictures.” The first movement is marked Avec emportement and
is dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky, a musician friend from allied Russia.Debussy prefaced the movement by an excerpt from Barbier and Carré’s libretto for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette The motto translates to “He who stays in his place and does not dance quietly admits to a disgrace.”Debussy may have found himself a disgrace as he could not participate in the “dance” of fighting for France due to his illness. The second movement is marked Lent. Sombre and is prefaced by a passage from Villon’s Ballade contre les ennemis de la France. Debussy had set some of the ballads by the 15th-century poet to music. The quotation is chosen from a ballad “against France’s enemies”.It has been called a political comment of unexpected intensity.The German hymn “Ein feste Burg “by Martin Luther is quoted in the foreground, with a focus on its military aspect, while the French Marseillaise appears almost hidden.The third movement is marked Scherzando and is
dedicated to Igor Stravinsky ,another musician from Russia, the movement is prefaced by a quote from another 15th-century poet, Charles of Orléans : “Yver, vous n’estes qu’un vilain” (Winter, you are nothing but a villain). Debussy had earlier set the poem containing the line for choir a cappella an “outburst against a hostile force”.En blanc et noir has been regarded as a subtle comment on the historical condition through literary and musical allusion, under the sparkling surface of brilliant pianistic artistry,making it a key work of 1915.
Suite No. 1 in G Minor (or Fantaisie-tableaux), Op. 5, is a suite for two pianos and was a musical depiction of four poems written in the summer of 1893 at the Lysikof estate in Lebeden, Kharkov.It was dedicated to Tchaikowsky as he was one of Rachmaninoff’s greatest inspirations and proponents. The premiere took place on November 30, 1893, having been played by Rachmaninoff himself and Pavel Pabst in Moscow,with Tchaikovsky having died a month prior. Its four movements alongside their respective poems are as follows:
Barcarolle. Allegretto, in G minor.At dusk the chill wave laps gently
Beneath the gondola’s slow oar
That song again and again, the twang of the guitar,
In the distance the old barcarolle was heard,
now melancholy, now happy…
The gondola glides through the water, and time glides over the surge of love;
The water will grow smooth again and passion will rise no more.
(Mikhail Lermontov)
La nuit… L’amour… Adagio sostenuto, in D major. (The night…the love…)It is the hour when from the boughs
The nightingale’s high note is heard,
It is the hour when lovers’ vows
Seem sweet in every whisper’d word,
And gentle winds and waters near,
Make music to the lonely ear…..
(Lord Byron)
Les Larmes. Largo di molto, in G minor. (The Tears) Tears, human tears
You flow both early and late —
You flow unknown, you flow unseen
Inexhaustible, innumerable —
You flow like torrents of rain
In the depths of an autumn night.
(Fyodor Tyutchev)
Pâques. Allegro maestoso, in G minor. (Easter)Across the earth a mighty bell is ringing
Until all the booming air rocks like the sea
As silver thunderings sing forth the tidings
Exulting in that holy victory…
(Aleksey Khomyakov)



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