The Kansas State University Library Chamber Music Series, temporarily exiled by last year’s fire from its home turf in the Hemisphere Room, mounted a substantial program of French music for piano four-hands for a sizable audience (likely twice as many as the fire marshal would have allowed to attend a Hemisphere concert) in St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center on Friday evening.
The artists, Slawomir Dobrzanski and Agustin Muriago, Ph.D.s, both members of the KSU music faculty, alternated between “primo” and “secondo” positions in presenting works by Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Faure and Kontski.
It was in most respects among the best recitals the series has offered. The concept was imaginative and engaging. It would have been hard to improve on the quality of the execution, technically or interpretively. The piano itself was a marvelous instrument with a voice both warm and bright, clear and rich.
Yet despite the many attractive elements of its decor, St. Isidore’s chapel wasn’t designed as a performance hall and didn’t function especially well as one. All its surfaces are hard, so the acoustic is chilly, and its lofty and cavernous interior space makes for a hollow and excessively reverberant sound. Add that, being a place for a different kind of worship, you can probably see the pulpit from wherever you are, but unless you’re near the front maybe not so much straight ahead of you. Finally, good as pews may be at reminding users of their sins, their firmness does little to enhance a concertgoer’s pleasure.
Any musical event involving two or more performers is possible only through precise collaboration to achieve which most larger ensembles do with a conductor. But smaller groups simply have to get it — and keep it — together by means of their totally unified focus.
Two pianists sharing one bench and one keyboard is about as concentrated as such togetherness gets. Add that the “primo” player must also decide when and for how long to apply the crucial damper/sustaining pedal and the closeness approaches a merger. The observable, and hearable, kinetic symbiosis between Dobrzanski and Muriago was truly exceptional.
Of the five pieces programmed, all composed for piano four-hands, at least three have become familiar to many via orchestral transcriptions: Debussy’s “Petite suite,” Ravel’s “Ma mere l’oye” (“Mother Goose Suite”), and Faure’s “Dolly Suite.” It was instructive to experience the pieces as written, keeping their larger, more lavish versions in mind for backdrop comparison. In each case, the core integrity of the original concept became evident.
The brief “Sonate pour piano a quatre mains” was here and gone so quickly one scarcely had time to savor Poulenc’s Gallic suavity, bonhomie and wit. Whether it has been set for orchestra I don’t know, but it would make a delightful concert opener.
According to Craig Parker’s program notes, Antoine de Kontski’s “Le reveil du lion — Caprice heroique” isn’t his best work but is the one he’s most remembered for today. Like “Bolero”? “Carnival of the Animals”? We just don’t get to pick what history will hang onto. Our duo hauled it out with grand gusto to bring things to a snappy finish.
Except that there was that pulsating encore: Astor Piazzola’s “Libertango,” which everyone grooved along with and nobody objected to, despite its flagrantly non-French, Argentine origin.