Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Shir Semmel and Dror Semmel - the Jerusalem Piano Duo - perform works for two pianos at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Jerusalem

Photo: Dan Porges

Inclement weather was no deterrent to the large audience which filled the hall of the Eden-Tamir Music Center Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, on December 29th 2018 to hear the Jerusalem Piano Duo - siblings Shir Semmel and Dror Semmel - in “The Glorious Sound of the Piano”.


W.A.Mozart composed Sonata in D Major for two pianos in the Autumn of 1781, dedicating the piece to Josepha Auernhammer, a student of his, who was to become known as one of the most famous piano soloists of her time. (Mozart, however, had some reservations about her playing.) Two years younger than Mozart, it seems, from the composer’s own writing, that she was in love with him, the sentiments not reciprocated by him. Surprisingly, Mozart must have dealt tactfully with the situation, as the piece was premiered by him and Auernhammer in Vienna in November of 1781. The work is recognized as being one of the most important of the repertoire for two pianos. In his opening remarks, Dr. Dror Semmel referred to it as “chamber music”. With their playing of the opening Allegro con spirito somewhat evoking the excitement and expectation inherent in a Mozart opera overture, the artists gave their performance of it Classical charm in playing that was fresh, alive and distinguished by clean fingerwork and a sense of discovery. The Andante was appealing and enchanting in its shaping, its dialogue touched by the occasional passing grey cloud. Could the dainty and enigmatically wistful major-minor motifs of the Andante movement have been an expression of Mozart’s feelings towards his pupil? As to the Allegro molto, the artists did not use it as a vehicle for showy bravura, rather as joyous entertainment, as it offered a few concerto-like opportunities for cadenzas with Mozartean elegance and sophistication.


Sergei Rachmaninoff originally called his Suite No. 1 Op. 5 “Fantaisie-Tableaux for two pianos”, envisioning the work as “a series of musical pictures” Dedicated to Tchaikovsky, the work’s vibrant textures and sweeping, abundant expressivity testify to Tchaikovsky’s style; however, the 20-year-old Rachmaninoff’s writing here also exhibits certain distinctive features of his own mature style. Shir and Dror Semmel set before the audience the work’s expansive canvases, each movement a pageant of energy, of vivid descriptive scenes, as in the opening Barcarolle’s evocative descriptions of water, its singing, lyrical melody juxtaposed with the  fragile but complex weave of the accompanying figures; then “La nuit...L’amour”, no tranquil, moonstruck night scene but one spiralling into an arresting, intense passionate utterance, rich in undercurrents wrought of extravagant passagework, yet permeated by the ever-present plangent call of the nightingale. The pianists’ masterful rendition of “Les Larmes” (Tears) showed the tear motif’s extraordinary transformative potential - both melodically and dynamically - its dimensions at times immense, at others, haunting, in a soundscape substantially awash with sustaining pedal but definitely articulate. And the finale, “Pâques” (Easter), a scene of vibrant colours and immense, spectacular proportions, its liturgical chant set against the repetitive tolling of Russian Orthodox church bells, building up to a cumulative effect emerging powerful and experiential. A memorable performance!


The final work on the program, Johannes Brahms’ Sonata for two pianos in F-minor, Op.34b, just one setting of a number made by the composer, the original being a string quintet (with two ‘cellos à la Schubert) from 1862 which the composer went and destroyed. (Brahms was a stern critic of his own work). When again embarking on a string quintet in the spring of 1882, he opted for the more common “Mozart” ensemble of two violins, two violas, and 'cello. The latter was revised in 1864 as a piano quintet (Op.34a). With the two-piano version appearing between the first two quintet settings, it is not sure whether or not it served as his personal ground plan for further scoring or as a means of introducing musicians and music lovers to the quintet. (Clara Schumann did not give it her approval, however, referring to it as an “arrangement,” and encouraging Brahms to produce the final piano quintet version.) Brahms, however, seems to have differed in opinion, premiering the two-piano version with Carl Tausig (a student of Liszt) in Vienna in 1864. It was dedicated to Princess Anna of Hessen, who was fond of this setting. (With neither of the two piano parts matching the piano part from the piano quintet, the scoring of each version is noticeably independent.) Dror Semmel referred to the two-piano version as “orchestral”. A dark work that spends much of its time in the middle and lower registers of the two pianos, the two artists’ like-minded, profound reading of it was vivid, Romantic and highly contrasted, never moving far from the yearning constantly welling up in Brahms’ soul. From the opening Allegro non troppo, with its brilliance, its percussive timbres, orchestral tutti, its pared-down, mysterious moments and the fragile character of the higher register, the fact that Brahms usually reversed the piano parts when analogous music returned emerged even-handed. The pianists gave a personal voice to the tranquil, Romantic agenda of the Andante and its sensibilité, the movement’s course defying bar-lines as it flowed into the unexpected. In sharp contrast and displaying split-second precision, they took on board the demands of the feisty Scherzo movement with its daring chordal textures, rhythmic trickery and power. Issuing in the Finale with the otherworldly, meditative, somewhat disturbing Poco sostenuto, Shir and Dror Semmel gave the movement’s many moods grandeur, warmth and ardour, all without excess and all without overstated sentimentality.


A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Mannes School of Music and Stony Brook University, Dror Semmel performs and teaches. He is the director of masterclasses and Young Pianists programs at the Aldwell Center for Piano Performance and Musicianship (Jerusalem) and serves as a juror for piano competitions. Soloist and avid chamber musician, Shir Semmel graduated from the Jerusalem Music Academy, completing her Master of Music degree at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music. After spending four years at the Peabody Institute as a student of Leon Fleisher, she is currently pursuing her DMA at SUNY Stony Brook under the tutelage of Gilbert Kalish.Taking on some of the most challenging works written for two pianos, Shir and Dror Semmel’s playing radiates the joy of music-making, displaying deep enquiry into the works, polished performance and superb musicianship.



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