It was yet another jam-packed weekend for music in the Triangle, headlined, perhaps, by percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s performances with the NC Symphony (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), but there was consolation in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium for those who turned out to hear Duke’s two-day Festival of Four Hands because – lest we forget – the piano is a percussion instrument, too!

The annual event presents faculty artists and guests in some rarely-heard music for piano four hands (also known as duets) and for two pianos. Things got underway on February 3 with three outstanding duos – Jane Hawkins and R. Larry Todd, Phyllis East (of the SUNY College at Fredonia School of Music) and David Heid, and Randall Love and Andrew Willis (of UNCG). There were some unusual things in the lineup, before we turn to the music. Todd is one of the world’s leading Mendelssohn scholars and a rare bird among musicologists – he can also play, and very well, too. East is a former teacher of Heid – she’s a wonderful, no-nonsense artist, and her appearance here with Heid provided a heart-warming link to the second evening’s offerings, which featured Duke students and their teachers. And Love and Willis are perhaps best known as stellar exponents of the fortepiano and other historic keyboard instruments, so hearing (and seeing) them carving up the rug that is George Crumb’s Zeitgeist made for some very entertaining moments.

The program drew a straight line from the Romantic era to our own time. Hawkins and Todd essayed a duet version of the serene Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed by the same composer’s Andante and Allegro brillant, Op. 92. The Nocturne was taken slower than many stick-wavers do it, with wonderful effects as the inner voices emerged with great clarity. The other piece, for two pianos, is reasonably well known among piano enthusiasts and received a radiant reading on this occasion. Yep, Todd has fine chops, and our readers already know how many contributions Hawkins makes to our musical lives, so this was an excellent partnership.

East and Heid began their group with transcriptions of three Rachmaninov songs by Victor Babin, whom many will recall as the late duo partner of the late Vitya Vronsky. The songs – an extended and elaborated version of the Vocalise, Op. 34/14, and somewhat more faithful renderings of “It’s lovely here” (also known as “How fair this spot”), Op. 21/7, and “Floods of Spring,” Op. 14/11 – were impressive in pianistic guises, and the richness and depth of Rachmaninov enveloped the hall and its occupants. Even more impressive, however, was the duo’s stunning reading of Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini – the same theme Rachmaninov used in his celebrated Rhapsody for piano and orchestra. Lutoslawski turns up too little here but his music is well worth hearing. This is one of his “great” pieces, and it received a performance that showed everyone precisely why it’s such a fabulous score.

The grand finale was the Love-Willis reading of Crumb’s Zeitgeist: Six Tableaux for Two Amplified Pianos, which almost always includes the tag, “Book I.” Although this fit admirably as the concluding number of a program whose trajectory pointed from the outset to “new music” the audience thinned before it began and dwindled during it – a shame, since Crumb’s music rewards patience and repetition, too. Portions of it sound somewhat dated; although it was composed in 1987, it seems to look back at much earlier pieces, including several by Cowell and Cage. Thus there are things in or on the strings – strange things like squeegees and glassware and such. The pianos are amplified, which creates an unusual set of sonics and directionalities to deal with. And the results are often not terribly “pianistic” – instead, the sound can resemble percussion of various kinds, synthesizers, and the like. The six movements are all different and convey various moods and emotions, some overtly, others subtly. Seeing it done was eye-opening. Hearing it was ear-opening. Playing it must have been both challenging and fun, too. And witnessing these two remarkable artists, so well known for their prowess in early music, undertake this radically modern score was a treat, all by itself.

The second installment of the Festival of Four Hands, given on February 4, was shorter and much more conservative. It began with three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances (Nos. 7, 11, and 10) in their duet (one-piano, four hands) incarnations. These are always fun to hear, and the performances were solid enough. The performers were Cindy Blohm, a junior who is pursuing a double major in English and biology, and Randall Love.

Schumann’s Andante and Variations, Op. 46, sounds like an orchestral piece, and indeed a member of the audience said as much during one of the breaks. It began life as a chamber work for two pianos, two cellos, and horn, but Schumann was not pleased with the balances, so he recast it for two pianos without the other instruments. We have Brahms to thank for having rescued the larger, original version, which was published without an opus number. Viktoria Elkis, a sophomore minoring in music, performed it with Jane Hawkins, and together they conveyed its spirit and large scale extremely well.

Robert Tipton, a senior double majoring in civil engineering and music, played Ravel’s exquisite transcription of Debussy’s “Nuages” (from Nocturnes) with Randall Love. This is an atmospheric piece par excellence in this version and the orchestral one, and the performance had a great deal going for it.

To end the program, Jonathan Agudelo, a senior double majoring in political science and music, was joined by David Heid for Percy Grainger’s substantial tour of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – it’s complete enough to include the Strawberry Woman’s street cry and a good many of the work’s biggest hits, too. This is a dazzling bit of pianistic sleight of hand, and it served as a fine cap for two impressive evenings of richly-varied fare. Bravo to all concerned. Now if we can just persuade the Duke folks not to compete head-to-head with a major visiting artist next time….