Touring piano duos seem to be getting rarer, so the concert by The Invencia Piano Duo in Elon's jewel box of a hall, Whitley Auditorium, was most welcome. Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn hail from Armenian and Ukrainian families. After initial education at the Moscow State Conservatory, they came to the United States in the 1990s to pursue advanced studies at Indiana University's School of Music in Bloomington. Currently they are on the faculty at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. They serve as Artistic Co-Directors of the Norfolk Chamber Consort besides being prolific recording artists. Kasparov provided congenial and insightful comments about their selections before performing them.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) saw himself as having extrovert and introvert personalities which he named Eusebius and Florestan. This probably attracted him to Friedrich Rückert's translation of the Maqāma of Al-Hariri of Basra (Hariris Makamen) about a strongly contrasted pair, one thoughtful, the other a wild rogue. These characters' adventures are suggested in the composer's Bilder aus Osten: Sechs Impromptus (Pictures from the East; Six Impromptus). The lively first impromptu is dramatic with a quieter trio-like episode in the middle. The second is moderately paced with a singing line. Dance rhythms dominate the third marked "In a Folk Style." The fourth, "Not Fast," is moderate in tempo and dynamics. The "Lively" fifth impromptu is like a wild ride while the sixth, marked "Repentant, devotional," is slow and melancholy. This reflects the final breakup of the characters in Schumann's Arab source.
The Invencia Duo's performance was very engaging with wide-ranging dynamics, refined tone color, and clear articulation.
Kasparov is also very active as a composer. The Duo was engaged to perform a program celebrating a Lutheran Church. He found their selections came up short for a full program so he composed "Fantasy on Lutheran Chorales" (2006) based on four chorales including "Ein Feste Burg S. 80" of Bach. Kasparov said he treated the German sources to French-styled harmonies. The Duo's performance of this introspective, restrained work was intriguing.
Kasparov said their musical passion is French music and this radiated throughout the rest of their program.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) worked on and off composing what became his six Epigraphes antiques (1914). He had planned to compose incidental music in 1900 to accompany recitation of verses from Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs. This score was for two flutes, two harps, and celesta. These evocative pieces were given stylish performances by Kasparov and Lutsyshyn. Their palette of tonal color was ravishing, and their clear articulation of fast passages was superb.
Trois pieces récréatives, Op. 36 (1907) by Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) served as a sampler of the Invencia Piano Duo's current major recording project. They have recently recorded four CDs on Naxos Records with the complete original works by Florent Schmitt for piano duet and duo. Kasparov recounted Schmitt's individualism, great influence during his lifetime, and his fall into obscurity after his death until a revival in the 1990s. He said Op. 36 was one of the shortest works in the Duo's repertoire, and it shared a brief and witty quality like Eric Satie's. The Duo's playing whetted the appetite for more.
La Valse (1919-20) was conceived by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as a ballet but it is most often heard as a purely orchestral work. Commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, his rejection of the work so angered Ravel the two came close to fighting a duel. The work is sometimes described as a tribute to the waltz. Ravel adamantly rejected any suggestion that it portrayed the decline of European civilization during WWII. Ravel made an arrangement for piano but the Invencia Duo played Kasparov's own transcription for piano duo. Kasparov and Lutsyshyn gave a spectacular performance! At times I was reminded of an old nineteenth-century cartoon of Franz Liszt with a flurry of many hands at the keyboard! At times it seemed the Duo was some sort of octopus with arms arching and extending in every direction. The degree to which they suggested the sound of an orchestra was remarkable! Kasparov's execution of the harp's glissandos was as extraordinary to see as well as to hear!
Their encore was a Polka by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), the great nineteenth century virtuoso.