Monday, April 21, 2014

The Silver Garburg Piano Duo's CD of works by Mendelssohn

With the flourishing of the piano duet in the 19th century, infrequent attendance of public concerts, the absence of recorded sound and CDs, with the piano’s popularity as a house instrument and the prevalence of house music, people played four-hand piano arrangements of symphonic and choral works in the privacy of their homes, to familiarize themselves with the repertoire and for their own entertainment. The Silver Garburg Piano Duo’s CD “Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, recorded in 2010 for the OEHMS Classics label, takes the listener back to this all-but-forgotten era.

A gifted pianist, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was much involved in domestic music-making. He wrote relatively few original works for four hands but his oeuvre includes some 18 arrangements of his own works for four hands – two symphonies, a string quartet, several overtures and the complete score of his incidental music to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In the intellectual environment of his family’s home, these pieces would surely have been played by Felix and his sister Fanny. A passionate literary scholar and enamored by the works of Shakespeare in particular, Mendelssohn read Ludwig Tieck and August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in his youth. The Mendelssohn family made a practice of reading Shakespeare plays aloud and even acting them out in the parlor of their home. Felix composed the concert overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opus 21, in 1826, at age 17, a work showing the young composer’s musical maturity and his mastery of the Romantic ideal of merging literature with music. The overture had Its first public performance in 1827. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, an ophicleide (a now obsolete kind of bass bugle, nowadays often replaced by tuba or contrabassoon), timpani and strings. The four-hand setting of the Overture (originally for two pianos), first performed by Felix and his sister Fanny, quickly followed by the orchestral version. At the request of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, Mendelssohn returned to the Shakespeare play in 1843, expanding the existing work to the 11-movement opus 61 score. (The composer made no changes to the overture, aware of the fact that it was conceivably his most perfect composition.) The first public performance of the complete work took place at the Berlin Schauspielhaus that year. This incidental music has remained one of the composer’s loveliest and most enduring works, however, rarely performed in conjunction with the play it was designed to accompany.

With vivid memories lingering in the minds of those familiar with the orchestral score, it is no small undertaking for artists to perform this work on piano, without woodwinds to add a glow to the chords of the Overture’s, strings to render the impish Scherzo light of foot, horns to color the noble, velvety Nocturne, brass instruments for the festive Wedding March and without women’s voices to charm and lull with
“You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen…”

With the very first reticent chords of the Overture Silver and Garburg evoke the image of the storyteller choosing his words slowly and painstakingly as the duo pianists take the listener into the magic-filled woods near Athens, the overture offering a preview of the elements of Shakespeare’s play – the scurrying of fairies, the inelegant braying of the endearing ass and the young lovers. The artists “orchestrate” the piano, using dynamic change to create color, their buoyant playing never lacking direction, their attention to the various voices layering the score ever present. Their timing and use of pauses are strategic. As to the Notturno, Silver and Garburg create this night music imaginatively and with sublime, cantabile tranquility, each modulation effecting change. Then to the Wedding March, its main subject played with thrilling exuberance and majestic delight, its resilient bass chords avoiding unwanted heaviness of texture, the episodes charming and tender. The clown dance once again pays good-natured respect to the foolish and clumsy character of Bottom, the weaver, whose head has been transformed into that of a donkey. In the Finale, the artists’ brilliant, light and totally clean playing delight in its spontaneity, the occasional dreamy chord there to suddenly stop proceedings, reminding the listener that the storyteller and we are about to leave the scene. Silver and Garburg’s sparkling technique, their sense of color, shape and precision see them through the work with masterful ease, but it is their comprehension of the realm of fantasy, of kindly humor and the pristine world of childlike naiveté that make this performance so delightful, magical and so convincing.

Mendelssohn began writing his “Six Songs without Words” for solo piano opus 62 in 1841, completing them in 1842. Soon after that, at a dinner in London in the presence of Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, a proposal was made to arrange opus 62 for piano four hands and dedicate the transcription to Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, both pianists. When the arrangements were almost completed, Mendelssohn learned that Queen Victoria’s favorite piece was “Dedication” from the opus 67 collection. The composer added it to the version for four hands, presenting the “Seven Songs without Words, opus 62 and 67” for piano duo to Prince Albert. In his dedication, the composer wrote “I have taken the liberty to arrange the fifth book of my Songs without Words for you…I have used hints of Czerny’s facile arrangement style…I have enclosed a still unpublished seventh song for four hands…”

Silver and Garburg played the pieces from the 1982 Barenreiter edition.Opening opus 62 with a piece sometimes referred to as “May Breezes”, Silver and Garburg present the piece’s exquisite, scented and flowing course, using a touch of rubato to flex the poetic language of the Romantic piano. No, 3, the Funeral March, in contrast to most of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”, is, indeed, the transcription of an existing song, its mood is more somber than that of most of the “Songs without Words”. Preceded by a fanfare opening, Silver and Garburg treat the stately theme with noble understatement. Their playing of No.4, a Venetian Gondola Song, is played in cooling timbres, its idyllic calm tinged with nostalgia. It is followed by the well-loved “Spring Song”, with its plucked effect. As to the briefer miniatures, each a musically pleasing but fleeting moment, the artists expressed the quality and distinctive beauty of all. Mendelssohn’s four-hand settings of opus 62 and no.1 of opus 67 allow for fuller piano “orchestration” and more solid bass anchorage, these, however, never making for heaviness at the hands of Silver and Garburg. The recording itself is of a high quality and true of sound. In these rarely-performed pieces, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg offer the listener another glimpse into the world of the Romantic miniature, into Mendelssohn’s rich and vibrant pianistic language that captures the intimacy and mood of the moment.

Both born in Israel, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg studied with Professor Arie Vardi at the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv, then proceeding to studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hanover, Germany. They perform and hold master classes throughout the world and are recipients of several first prizes in international competitions, both as soloists and as a duo.

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