Six pianists dish up fresh and spicy fare

Anne-Marie McDermott
The Detroit News

Too many chefs may spoil the sauce, but a kitchen full of pianists cooked up something special in a celebration of the keyboard Saturday night at Hill Auditorium.

This moveable feast of piano music for multiple performers is a tour by six virtuosi from New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The artists variously combined in a rare and delightful assortment of works for four hands (two pianists seated at one piano) and for two pianos facing each other.

It wasn't so much that the selections were unheard of -- Mozart's Andante and Variations, K. 501, Mendelssohn's Andante and Variations in B-flat, Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Fauré's "Dolly Suite." It's just that they're seldom heard these days because recitals by two pianists (never mind six!) hardly ever happen.

But for rarity, fascination and absolutely riotous fun, nothing came close to a performance of the original version of Stravinsky's wild and woolly ballet "The Rite of Spring," played by Wu Han and Gilbert Kalish seated at one piano.

As Han explained to the audience before occupying her half of the bench, cramming Stravinsky's furiously tangled rhythms and clashing harmonies onto a single keyboard under 20 flying fingers is no small thing.
"There are some big traffic issues," she said, drawing laughter from the house. "And in a piece like this, the top (upper register) pianist (Kalish) has to rely on the bottom pianist to do all the pedaling -- which is very uncomfortable for him. It's like having someone else brush your teeth."

But Han said she and Kalish learned the piece a few years ago because its history was simply irresistible. This is the form in which 'The Rite of Spring' was first heard, she said, when it was played for Pierre Monteux, who conducted the world premiere of the ballet in 1913. Han added that the pianists who played it then were Stravinsky and Claude Debussy."

So off they went, Han pounding out the bass register rhythms with such force that she bounced off the bench, her long hair flying, and Kalish gingerly weaving his arms into Han's one moment and the next moment shrinking back to allow her more elbow room. It was a distilled "Rite," lacking its colorful orchestral raiment but luminous and pure in its raw, violent outlines.

For the rest, Anne-Marie McDermott shone in a pair of two-piano appearances, an animated turn through the Mendelssohn variations with Inon Barnatan and a taut, glittering account of the Lutoslawski with André-Michel Schub. Barnatan and Gilles Vonsattel made a charming serenade of Fauré's "Dolly Suite."