Sunday, March 20, 2011

Duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony play a program of rhapsodies at the Felicja Blumenthal Center (Tel Aviv)

March 12th 2011 was one of those mild, idyllic sunny Tel Aviv winter’s days. The auditorium of the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center was filled to capacity with people gathered to hear a recital of the duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony. The concert was in support of the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes. Held annually for the last 20 years, and in memory of Marina Bondarenko, one of its founders and the director for ten years, the Tel-Hai workshop brings together renowned teachers with outstanding students in the inspiring environment of Sde Boker College. Yuval Admony was once a student there. Today Kanazawa and Admony are members of faculty. The concert also celebrated the release of the piano duo’s disc of “Rhapsodies for Two Pianos” (“Romeo” label) a disc presenting rhapsodies from seven countries.

In his informative and interesting program notes, Yuval Admony opens with an explanation of the term “rhapsody” – referring to it as music of a national character, based on folklore, adding that it offers the composer freedom of form, the freedom to express strong emotions and to compose in an improvisational manner.

The first work on the program was an “Armenian Rhapsody” (1950), composed by the renowned Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian (b.1920) in collaboration with fellow Armenian Arno Babadjanyian (1921-1983) and jointly performed by the composers at the time. The piece combines the influence of Russian composers of the time with aspects of Armenian music, notably, characteristic modes, embellishments and dance rhythms. Kanazawa and Admony gave life to the piece’s piano “orchestration” and moods – thoughtful, singing moments juxtaposed with virtuosic urgency in energetic dance rhythms, the latter demanding a drumming technique of thumbs. The artists set before us a “vista” rich in scenes and flavors of a culture not often experienced in the Israeli concert hall.

Not moving far afield, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1783-1873) composed his “Russian Rhapsody” at age 18 when still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. He wrote it in response to a student friend’s claim that he (Rachmaninoff) was not able to write a rhapsody. Premiered in 1891 by the composer and Josef Lhevinne, both brilliant pianists, the work is, actually, a theme and variations rather than a rhapsody, its subject a typically nostalgic Russian type of melody. Kanazawa and Admony use their vast palette of pianistic colors to bring out poignantly introspective moments, formal passages and “triumphant” sections, transcending effortlessly from one soundscape to the next. Particularly pleasing was their use of airy, light playing in contrast to thicker pianistic textures.

Composer, music critic and director of the Lyon Conservatory, Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was one of the most interesting of the unconventional and avant-garde French composers of the first half of the 20th century, his output of 137 works embracing all genres apart from opera. (A music critic for “Le Temps”, he was known to shout out his opinions from his seat in the concert hall; Heugel, the music publisher, referred to him as an “irresponsible lunatic”.) A fine pianist himself, Schmitt’s prolific writing for the instrument is wonderfully idiomatic. His opus 53 Rhapsodies (1903-1904), each in the style of a different country, are his only works for two pianos. Kanazawa and Admony first played Schmitt’s “French Rhapsody”, rife with French chic and dreamy, Impressionistic references and sentimentality, one mood moving smoothly into the next. The duo took their cues from the text, flexing rhythms here and there.

Schmitt’s “Viennese Rhapsody” bristles with typically Viennese waltzes. Schmitt seems to be searching for them, finds many, never completing one before moving into a transitional section and finding another. The artists show their listeners through the somewhat humorous text of mannered waltzes, gently colored with dissonance, many of them charming, but, at times, allowing the dancer to be carried away in a wild, carefree fashion. Kanazawa and Admony remind us that music is fine entertainment!

George Gershwin’s (1989-1937) “Rhapsody in Blue” was conceived within three weeks. He had actually formed its ideas on his way to Boston on the train, inspired by the noises of the train ride. On returning to New York, he produced a two-piano version which was to be orchestrated by Ferde Grofe. However, it was premiered February 24th 1924 before Gershwin had had time to write out the piano part; the composer improvised the piano part at the performance. The work has been much discussed, its lack of formal structure criticized. Leonard Bernstein referred to it as “not a composition at all”, but “a string of terrific tunes stuck together with a thin paste of flower and water”. Admony and Kanazawa have made their own arrangement of the “Rhapsody in Blue”, resulting in equal division of labor rather than a concerto form. In a reading ever articulate and balanced, they present the rich, cascading collage of ideas of Gershwin’s detailed canvas. They remind us that Gershwin was a song-writer, that New York was his scene, as was the jazz around him, and they make a point of bringing out the nostalgic, sensitive, human message of the work. Their performance of it was fresh and energizing.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, piano pieces (for one piano)composed 1846-1853 and 1882-1885. The concert ended with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 (1847). The composer dedicated the piece to Lszlo Teleki, a Hungarian writer and statesman. The artists played the Richard Kleinmichel arrangement of it for two pianos. Charming in its folk dance elements, strong eastern European colors, together with the delicacy of the timbre of plucked instruments, the latter evoked in the upper register of the piano, it deals with melody and textures, with tradition and landscapes. Liszt invites the pianist to divise his/her own cadenza. The CD includes Yuval Admony's cadenza.

Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony perform widely in Israel and overseas, record and hold master classes; they are the recipients of many prizes. Their virtuosity, however, is a means to breathing life, shape, style and color into whatever works they tackle, rather than an end in itself. Balance, good taste and strategic timing pervade their playing, offering profound enjoyment to audiences.

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