Recital Review Print



Piano Four Hands Schubertiad at Elon University

April 1, 2003 - Elon, NC:


It was heartening to see a packed house in Elon University's Whitley Auditorium on April 1 for a choice and rare evening of some of Franz Schubert's finest works for piano four hands. The concert was presented under the aegis of The Adams Foundation of Santa Barbara, California, which is establishing piano recitals in select communities throughout America. In collaboration with Elon University and the Burlington Times-News , the Foundation hopes to make The Adams Foundation Piano Recital Series at Whitley Auditorium a permanent feature of the area's cultural life, and since it is an easy drive from both the Triad and the Triangle, their concerts should be red lettered on every music lover's calendar.

Masterful interpretations were given by the acclaimed duo piano team of Richard and John Contiguglia. The identical twins graduated "summa cum laude" from Yale and with honors from the Yale College of Music. They studied for four years in London with their mentor, Dame Myra Hess, who exhorted them to promote the Schubert piano duet repertory. The brothers are most often heard playing two pianos (as at the Greensboro Symphony's Poulenc concert, reviewed by CVNC last fall). Their desire to play the glorious restored 1923D Steinway enthroned in Whitley led them to create a program surveying Schubert's most significant works for piano four hands. Piano duets played by ad hoc or intermittent teams can be boring - or worse, murky - affairs. Too often those I have heard have left me with the impression that most of the pleasure must have been found solely in playing them. In contrast, the Contiguglia brothers have been playing together as a duo since they were five years old. That constant ensemble effort was most telling. They articulated musical lines with extraordinary clarity, and their great care with phrasing was a masterclass in musicianship and style. Technical details and mere virtuosity were not ends in themselves but were subordinated to realizing the composer's intent.

One of the brothers alluded to the fact that the only job that Schubert ever succeeded in getting was two periods of tutoring the two young daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterhazy of Galanta at his summer estate at Zseliz (now called Zeliezovce and in Slovakia, but at that time, a market town in Hungary). The twelve- and sixteen-year-olds apparently loved to play piano four hands. Of course, in the days before recordings, this was one of the easiest forms of entertainment and a part of the education of many with social pretense. The composer eventually produced nearly eight hours-worth of music for this use, ranging from light dances and marches to some of his finest pieces.

From Schubert's first sojourn at Zseliz, in 1818, the Contiguglia brothers chose the First Marche militaire, in D, D.733. Brian Newbould (from whose Schubert: The Man and His Music I will crib shamelessly) writes, "none of the duet forms won over Schubert more frequently than the march. Clearly the fullness of sound obtainable when four open-out hands are disposed over the keyboard can be a boon in lending gravitas to the solid tread of martial rhythm." His marches were "stereotyped affairs, with the martial dactyl as a mainspring of the principal section" and with a "jaunty rather than lyrical... trio in the subdominant key." This was pleasant enough - a nice sample of his early work - but it was dwarfed by the rest of the program.

Schubert - like Brahms - is justly famous for his skill with the variation form. Newbould notes doubts as to the authenticity of the Introduction and Variations on an Original Theme, in B-flat, D.603 (1824), since the autograph score is lost and its authorship lacks documentation. One of the Contiguglia brothers mentioned that Schubert quoted two measures from Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. That composer's Variations on a Russian Dance, in A-flat, from the ballet Das Waldmädchen , served as a model. A long introduction precedes the first statement of the theme, which a brother said was Schubert's take on the tune we know as "Twinkle, twinkle little star."

More substantial was the "Divertissement á la hongroise," D.818 (1824), "a three movement work with two rondos flanking a central march-and-trio." A reminiscence of Karl von Schönstein in 1857 stated that "the theme... is a Hungarian Song... which Schubert overheard a Hungarian Kitchenmaid singing in Count Esterhazy's kitchen." The first tune heard in the piece is such a plausible, slightly modal thing, that one might expect it to be of folk origin. Newbould reports considerable debate "about what ingredients might be Hungarian." The cadenza-like passages, in which trills mimic the metallic resonance of the cimbalom, were memorable.

Both late works that concluded the program were composed during Schubert's last year, 1828. One of the Contiguglia brothers read an anguished contemporary letter of the composer's that reflected his suffering and despair. The Fantasy in F Minor, D.940, is one of the greatest masterworks written for piano four hands. It is a continuous piece in four sections, framed by opening and closing sections that share the same material. The poignant melody from which the whole fantasy is fashioned is unforgettable. (One of the brothers related a performance that took place in a nursing home; after it ended, they could hear someone very near singing that melody. It was a stroke victim who had been unresponsive for several years.) The last movement has a masterful fugue that builds gradually to a stunning complete silence, followed by a very terse coda. It was a breathtaking performance that even a late and long freight train did not spoil.

The Rondo in A, D.951, ended the formal concert. Robert Schumann regarded this as one of Schubert's best works. The brothers view it as the distillation of all of the finest aspects of the composer's style. While it is the sunniest of the last three duets, it ends with a darkening of mood. In the notes to their recording ( Schubert: Piano Duets - The Final Year, on Gemini Classics GC 100, their own label), the brothers write that "the A Major triad, on which the Rondo comes to rest beneath a rising arpeggio and a 'pp' trill in the treble, must surely be one of the saddest major triads in all of music." After enthusiastic applause, the brothers played a brief Andante they had found among the composer's works.